Why the Coens completing their ‘Numbskull Trilogy’ with Hail Caesar is great for modern comedy.
Fans of the Coen brothers were happy to hear last week that the filmmaking siblings’ next film will be Hail Caesar, and a return to broad comedy, this time lampooning 1950s era Hollywood. Another reason to get excited is that reports suggest it will star frequent collaborator George Clooney, and that the film will be the final instalment of a loosely connected series, which they call their ‘Numbskull Trilogy’.
What cinema needs right now is a return to something more old fashioned: the screwball comedy.
This trilogy began with the Depression-era set and Greek tragedy inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was then followed up with the courtroom farce Intolerable Cruelty. Once Hail Caesar is released, the Coens and Clooney hope to round out their collaboration with yet another loveable numbskull protagonist who – despite protestations to the contrary – is always in way over his head.
What makes this reunion between the directors and their star so exciting is the fact that the current state of comedy on the big screen is either completely bereft of originality, as seen in The Other Woman, or using a formula that is being stretched a little too thin, like in Bad Neighbours. These films are still immensely popular (sometimes mind-bogglingly so) but they also represent a kind of cultural bankruptcy. What cinema needs right now is a return to something more old fashioned, something the Coen brothers have not only done before, but have perfected for the modern age: the screwball comedy.
The screwball comedy is a quintessential American genre which grew in popularity during the Great Depression and remained popular into the 1940s. It usually revolves around a central courtship of a man and a woman (with the woman generally being the stronger and more forceful personality) and involves various farcical situations and misunderstandings. Examples of classic screwball comedies are Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Some Like It Hot and Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday.
What the Coens do best is take elements and tropes of genres and remix them with their own quirky ideas
What the Coen brothers do best with all the American genres they have interpreted in their filmography (film noir with The Man Who Wasn’t There, the spy film with Burn After Reading) is to take the elements and tropes of these genres and basically remix them with some of their own quirky ideas, until the finished product is both recognisable as the particular genre and undoubtedly a unique Coen brothers experience.
The filmmakers’ first collaboration with Clooney on the ‘Numbskull Trilogy’ was the wildly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which in perfect Coen brothers style took elements of the screwball comedy (even setting it during the Great Depression) and mixed it up with the road movie and even the musical. It spawned an enormous cult following and a Grammy award for its amazing soundtrack. Their second ‘numbskull’ film was Intolerable Cruelty, which fit the definition of a screwball comedy to a T.
It wasn’t as successful as their previous film, perhaps because it feels less like a Coen brothers film and more like a straight down the line old fashioned screwball comedy. It is still an unequivocally hilarious film with a terrific performance from Clooney, always on fine form when working with the Coens. Reports suggest the character Clooney will portray in Hail Caesar is somewhat like a ‘fixer’ for a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, who works to keep the seedier aspects of the lives of contracted actors away from the press. What scrapes and mishaps he will get into will remain to be seen, but the idea of the filmmakers lampooning Hollywood is so delicious it is hard not to get excited about the possibilities of how this film will take shape.
The idea of the Coens lampooning Hollywood with Hail Caesar is so delicious it is hard not to get excited about the possibilities
Perhaps we will get something akin to the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, which was not only a toe tapping good time, but a hysterical satire of the early days of cinema. Or perhaps the film will find the Coens returning to the milieu of one of their previous films, Barton Fink, only this time swapping out the existential despair with pratfalls and more of George Clooney mugging for the camera (which he has mastered through his work with the Coens). No matter what form the film will eventually take, there is no group of filmmakers better equipped to poke fun at Hollywood.
If they can fashion another one of their classic genre mash-ups, the Coen brothers, in tandem with Clooney’s star power, will provide the comedy antidote the box office sorely needs right now. Something that is not only a masterful piece of filmmaking but also a rollicking good time, free of the scatological and quasi-racist obsessions of the current crop of so called ‘comedies’ which have been stinking up the multiplexes of late. It’s time to get very excited: All hail the triumphant return of a new Coen brothers comedy.
Featured image: Momentum Pictures
Inset images: Momentum Pictures; Universal