George Clooney has directed a new movie coming out this fall, and the word from the Toronto International Film Festival, where it debuted last week, has not been encouraging. Suburbicon finds Clooney dusting off an old Coen brothers script and apparently appending some commentary on racism in America with his regular co-writer Grant Heslov, in what has been described as an awkward fusion of two very different sensibilities. This is surprising to hear, not because Clooney always nails it as a director, but because he has so frequently collaborated with the Coen brothers on-screen that any manner of off-screen collaboration seems like it should be second nature.
Clooney’s work with the Coens arguably predates his coronation as full-on Hollywood royalty. It’s difficult to picture now that he’s more entrenched in the studio system, Oscar season, and the orbit of Matt Damon than anyone else who’s ever been on both Sisters and ER, but there was once a time when George Clooney’s credibility as a movie star was a fragile and tentative thing. During his last few years on ER, he made an eclectic batch of movies befitting a star in waiting: a crime/horror hybrid, a romantic comedy, an adult-targeted action/adventure, and a superhero/toy commercial. And besides Clooney, they all had one thing in common: box office performance that was middling or worse.
Understandable, then, that even after Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight established him as a sexy, funny, commanding leading man, Clooney appeared to become something between cautious and choosy regarding his projects. Though he would eventually work with Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Anton Corbijn, Jason Reitman, Alfonso Cuaron, and Brad Bird, for about a decade George Clooney mostly made movies directed by either Soderbergh, the Coens, or himself.
To be clear, there’s a David O. Russell movie in that period, plus a sliver of a part in a Terrence Malick film; Clooney also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a movie directed by the screenwriter of a Steven Soderbergh picture, rather than Soderbergh himself. But so much of Clooney’s work between 1998 and 2008 feels like his attempt to absorb all he could from Soderbergh and the Coens by working with them as often as possible. In contrast to his image-busting work with Matt Damon, Soderbergh typically allows Clooney to operate at peak leading-man charisma. Joel and Ethan Coen, though, have something else in mind.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their first collaboration, makes clear its intent on scuffing up the actor’s handsome image more or less from the jump; it’s simultaneously star-making and star-kidding. Clooney first appears smudged, a little greasy, and dressed in old-timey prison garb, chained to two other men (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) as part of an escape from a Depression-era chain gang. Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill is the nominal leader of this outfit; he’s the first one to hop up on an open train car the three are pursuing, taking it upon himself to address a gaggle of unimpressed hobos and inquire as to whether any of them are trained in the “metallurgical arts,” such that they might free him from his chains. Before he can finish, however, one of Everett’s compatriots loses his balance, falls, and sends Everett out of the train car with a thump, a squeaky cartoon drag, and a wonderful bit of mugging on Clooney’s handsome, smudged face.
Clooney’s opening dialogue to the hobos is typical of both the Coens, who adore comic wordiness like few modern screenwriters, and Everett, who is one of their more comically loquacious creations. He’s a classic dope who fancies himself brainy because he may be somewhat smarter than the dopes who surround him, and Clooney’s visage in O Brother reads as a straight-up spoof of his classical movie-star bona fides. With his hair slicked back or up (using Dapper Dan pomade, goddammit, not the inferior brand Fop) and a Clark Gable mustache, Clooney looks like a bit like a caricature version of a period-appropriate smoothie, and speaks in the clipped-yet-elevated tones of an old screwball hero. Clooney looks a little more foolish than, say, Cary Grant doing farce, because the Coens recast befuddled straight-man decency as boobish vanity. Despite his lowly station as an escaped convict, Everett takes pride in his appearance (again: Dapper Dan, goddammit) and his leadership skills, even when the latter amounts to hilariously unhelpful pronouncements of “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!”
Star vanity is one of the Coens’ favorite attributes to assign Clooney characters. Miles Massey, the hotshot divorce lawyer at the center of their neo-screwball Intolerable Cruelty, receives a traditional why-hello-there star push-in when he arrives at his office early in the movie. But that’s not his first scene. Clooney is actually introduced teeth-first, shot in a dentist’s chair with his mouth held open, his gleaming teeth illuminated, and his face obscured. Massey proceeds to compulsively re-examine and finger-scrub those teeth throughout the film, obsessed with projecting his hot-shot image. Harry Pfarrer, the somewhat dimwitted U.S. marshal Clooney plays in Burn After Reading, gets antsy when he can’t go for a run (he also pays vaguely absent-minded attention to the quality of various flooring installations). Somehow, it wasn’t until his fourth film with the Coens that Clooney just played that paragon of vanity, a movie actor. In the somewhat underappreciated Hail, Caesar! he’s Baird Whitlock, the line-flubbing star of the film’s titular Roman epic.
If anything, the Coens and Clooney downplay Whitlock’s vanity and even his dimness; compared to someone like Harry Pfarrer, Baird Whitlock is weak-willed and easily led more than actively stupid. When Whitlock is nabbed by a communist collective, he comes around to their way of thinking without much prodding—until studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) literally slaps the communist thoughts away. Even when the movie avoids heavily spoofing actorly vanity, Hail, Caesar! feels intent upon putting Clooney in his place; his Whitlock is notably the most affably bumbling of the many movie-star characters (Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and even pronunciation-challenged Alden Ehrenreich get to show off movies-within-the-movie chops). For that matter, he’s less commanding than other Clooney/Coen characters. Everett McGill and Miles Massey at least get to be the heroes of their absurd, slapsticky stories; Whitlock gets slapped off screen as Mannix walks into the brightening day as the movie’s hero (albeit in a semi-ironic way).
Clooney gets slapped, punched, and thrown around a lot in the Coens’ world. This also gives him license to swing away from the discipline of his Soderbergh pictures. Soderbergh supposedly put a stop to Clooney’s head-bobbing tic during Out Of Sight, and sometimes it bobs back up in later performances. If he indulges that move in Intolerable Cruelty, it’s hard to notice, because Clooney is drawing so much attention with his busy hands, which flap, drum, tent, and gesticulate nervously in scene after scene. Miles Massey is charming and confident, but he’s not unflappable; actually, he spends a lot of the movie flapping.
To some degree, all four of Clooney’s Coen movies satirize the old-school charm and savoir faire that lit up Out Of Sight. When they doll him up like a hobo Clark Gable, place him in a screwball rom-com, or answer an impenetrable political-intrigue melodrama like Syriana with a nasty farce like Burn After Reading, the Coens parody Clooney’s ambitions, giving him a hard time on par with Sam Raimi knocking around the square-jawed Bruce Campbell. It’s clearly Clooney’s comic outlet of choice; he’s done only a few other movies that would qualify as comedies at all. He also doesn’t turn up in the more sobering, noirish Coen movies like No Country For Old Men or The Man Who Wasn’t There. The closest he’s come are Burn After Reading, which chases its many big laughs with a pervasive sourness, both bracing and a little off-putting, and perhaps the upcoming Suburbicon, in which he does not actually appear, nor which did the Coens actually direct. For the most part, he tends to get his serious-movie cred elsewhere.
But by making time for the Coens’ funhouse mirror of his career, Clooney re-asserts control of his star narrative. This may not seem like a necessary long-term project considering Clooney’s stature in Hollywood; on the other hand, he’s still more than willing to make self-deprecating jokes about his poor performance in Batman & Robin, a movie that can and should be blamed on any number of people beyond its trapped stars. (A Coens-directed Clooney Batman, by the way, would have been riotously silly, rather than lazily.) Recall that Clooney fought his way in from television—and not the prestige television we know today, where some of the finest performers of their generation are allowed access to roles with more depth, feeling, or darkness than the average would-be blockbuster. No, Clooney was a TV grinder who appeared on well over a dozen series before finding success in his 30s with ER (which wasn’t even his first show with that name!). The Coens offer him the opportunity to make jokes about himself, jokes where he’s a lightweight and a boob and kind of a ham—before anyone else can.
If the Coens fulfill a clear function within Clooney’s prestigious filmography, what does Clooney do for the Coen brothers, apart from bringing a matinee-idol handsomeness to a rep company that has otherwise included John Turturro, Jon Polito, John Goodman, Michael Badalucco, and Steve Buscemi? (No offense intended, gentlemen; you all deserve the Together Again treatment and to be honest, Buscemi looks almost dapper in person.) It’s tempting and probably true to say that Clooney’s movies with the Coens are not among the directors’ most beloved works, the caveat being that the Coens have such a fanatical following that almost everything they’ve ever made is either someone’s favorite, or someone’s choice for criminally underappreciated. Even so: Intolerable Cruelty doesn’t top many of those lists, and the recent Caesar! was not as well-received as several of the movies that preceded it. Even O Brother seems to have fallen in esteem somewhat since its release.
But beyond the likelihood that the Coens don’t think much about what critics or fans think of their work, Clooney provides a connection to “real,” by which I really mean old-fashioned, Hollywood, even as the Coens make fun of that quality. The brothers’ cinephilia used to be played up more in their press, specifically in their first 10 years between Blood Simple and The Hudsucker Proxy. Since then, their status as self-aware movie-saturated genre appreciators has been eclipsed by Quentin Tarantino—and movie-crazy homage has become a building block of big-studio careers rather than simply the realm of nerds like the Coens or Brian De Palma. The Coens’ work also seems today, as often happens when filmographies swell, more inimitably their own. Hail, Caesar! has homages aplenty, but could it be mistaken for anything but a Coens picture?
Distinctive as it is, Hail, Caesar! still shows off their love of old Hollywood movies, and the cavalcade of genuine stars that appear in it contributes to its cockeyed celebration, balancing out its allegorical concerns. The Coens’ movies have complexities and mysteries, but they’re also entertainment. That’s rarely more clear than when they get Clooney on screen and make him look ridiculous. Thanks in part to Clooney’s mastery of their dialogue, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is still one of their funniest movies—and its gross back in 2000 qualified it as one of their biggest hits, too. Since then, they’ve had bigger successes without their biggest star. But maybe the same comforting (if semi-inexplicable) line of credit that keeps Clooney directing dramas for grown-ups at a steady clip has helped the Coen brothers make movies in an environment increasingly interested in expensive franchising. Then again, it’s also possible that they just really enjoy slapping him around.