1960s Minnesota. 1980s Texas. 1930s Mississippi. 1950s New York. 1940s Hollywood. Joel and Ethan Coen are, in a way, cinematic time-travelers, hopscotching through history as writers and directors. That includes their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is set in the folk scene of early 1960s Greenwich Village, and apparently extends to their next project, which the brothers recently told the Associated Press will be set in ancient Rome. Driven by the desire to do something unexpected, they’re exploring a world way out of their comfort zone:
“‘It’s like: Would you ever do a sandal movie?’ laughs Joel. ‘It’s big,’ says Ethan, grinning. ‘We’re interested in the big questions. And we don’t (expletive) around with subtext. This one especially.”
Though their movies usually revel in the absurdity of life’s predicaments, Ethan promises this film has answers: ‘It’s not like our piddly A Serious Man.’ Chimes Joel: ‘That was a cop-out. We just totally chickened out on that one.’
‘We hadn’t grown up,’ says Ethan. ‘In that respect, okay, we have matured. We’re ready to answer the big questions now.’”
Sure they have. That’s why they’re sarcastically calling their own movie “piddly.”
This hunger to challenge themselves and the related refusal to settle inside any box Hollywood (or their audience) wants to put them in is what keeps the Coens so exciting to watch. It’s something that’s probably hurt them in the short term on a few occasions; it certainly affected the initial reception of The Big Lebowski, for example, that it was such a stylistic and tonal departure from the movie they made right before it, Fargo. From then until now, the Coens seem more concerned with defying expectations than satisfying them. That should continue to serve them well, even in ancient Rome.