Known for both his multifaceted career and his habit of channeling drama into comedy, Barry Sonnenfeld has been working steadily since the mid-'80s as a director, cinematographer, producer, and, from time to time, as an actor. At his best he has given audiences such sharp, witty, and deftly directed films as Get Shorty (1995) and The Addams Family (1991); at his worst, he has been responsible for unequivocal stinkbombs like For Love or Money (1993) and Wild Wild West (1999).
A native of New York, where he was born April 1, 1953, Sonnenfeld spent many of his high school days going to the movies instead of class. His principle interest was in photography, which he learned the basics of as a darkroom lab technician at New York University. While at N.Y.U., he made the acquaintance of two fellow students, Joel and Ethan Coen. Sonnenfeld, who had been earning extra cash as a cameraman on low-budget films, including pornographic ones, began collaborating with the Coen brothers on their first film, Blood Simple (1984), as a cinematographer. He continued to work with them in this capacity on two of their subsequent films, Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller's Crossing (1990).
Sonnenfeld also lent his cinematographic talents to such films as Throw Momma From the Train (1987), Big (1988), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Misery (1990), before making his directorial debut with The Addams Family in 1990. An amiably twisted family comedy starring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia, the film was a big hit, and Sonnenfeld duly turned out a sequel, Addams Family Values, three years later. It was for Get Shorty (1995), however, that he received his greatest praise to date; a cool, neatly packaged adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel, it was hailed as one of the best films of the year, and played no small part in resurrecting the once-flagging career of John Travolta, who starred as Chili Palmer, a loan collector for the mob mixed up in bad business in Hollywood. Men in Black (1997), Sonnenfeld's next directorial outing, proved to be a critical mixed bag, although the box-office receipts for the comedy about two government agents (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) doing battle with aliens were lucrative enough to mitigate the slings and arrows of disgruntled critics. The following year, Sonnenfeld once again earned a share of critical approval as the executive producer of Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, another stylishly satisfying Elmore Leonard adaptation starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Unfortunately, Sonnenfeld's next stint as a director was Wild Wild West, a Western starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline that headed into the deep, deep South at the box office and the realm of critical opinion. After taking a breather for a couple of years, Sonnenfeld returned to theaters in 2002 with two more comedies, Big Trouble and Men in Black 2. The former, a Get Shorty-like ensemble comedy involving a botched terrorist plot, was delayed for six months after the September 11th tragedies and failed to make an impression at the box office upon release. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi