Why do they get away with this? First of all, look at them. These aren't guys who belong in Hollywood or anywhere else that directly intercepts the sun's rays. They're like huggable anti-Baldwins. Not only do they look like bookstore clerks, but they giggle and mock themselves. Even coldhearted studio bosses are so charmed, they let the pair make their small-budget,
low-profit movies every year and give them control over the final edit. In addition, there's the fact that Coen brothers films are often brilliant.
But the real trick to their belovedness is that Joel and Ethan Coen go highbrow on lowbrow: opera parody mixes with stoner humor in The Big Lebowski, a cow explodes in the middle of a Depression-era adaptation of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and quips about Renaissance music are juxtaposed with irritable-bowel syndrome in their latest, The Ladykillers, which opens this Friday. "We're not embarrassed to put in the cheapest gags if they make us laugh," says Joel, 49. "On the other hand, if something goes over somebody's head, we don't care if not everybody gets it." Nothing makes people especially the type of young men who watch their films over and over and form a fan base happier than very smart jokes about very adolescent topics.
The likability factor of the Coen brothers is so strong that even when an idea seems bad (like retreading the old British movie The Ladykillers) and is not even theirs (the Coens were hired to write the script and then took on the whole project when Barry Sonnenfeld dropped out as director), Tom Hanks signs up at below his usual salary. "I wanted to work with the guys," says Hanks. "If someone said, 'Disney is remaking The Ladykillers,' you'd probably just run away. But the Coen brothers live in this alternative world where they don't have to adhere to the same rules that most other people do when it comes to filmmaking."
The Coen brothers didn't go to Hanks for his box-office juice. They tried that last year with Intolerable Cruelty, a commercial failure even with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a romantic comedy. "I don't know that we want to do something again where that was the obligation," says Joel. They cast Hanks because he could pull off the potentially over-the-top role of a classics-obsessed Southern criminal. "Tom can do that sort of stuff without it being shtick," says Ethan, 46, sitting with his brother at a Los Angeles diner.
By packing the film with eccentrics like Hanks' professor and Marlon Wayans' blue-tongued inside man, Gawain MacSam, they were able to make the film their own, but they have no interest in attempting another remake. "Movies are either bad or they're good, and you say, 'Oh, that's great,'" says Joel. "We look at our own movies and think they need to be remade," jokes Ethan. They promise, however, to make a sequel in 20 years to their largely ignored cult hit Barton Fink, to be called Old Fink, when John Turturro is old enough to play the 1940s playwright in his creepy dotage. "He's a professor at Berkeley in the Summer of Love," says Ethan. "He's sleeping with coeds. He's turned into this horrible creature with turtlenecks and medallions," says Joel. "BY POPULAR DEMAND is what the poster is going to say," says Ethan, giggling.
For guys who hate talking to the press, they're awfully good at finishing each other's sentences with jokes, and Ethan's constant laughter at Joel's wry antics makes it almost seem as if they're having fun. But these Hollywoody parts of their job are the parts they don't like. To insulate themselves from too much show-biz stuff, they work with the same small crew they have used since they made Blood Simple in 1984. They also jointly write, direct, produce and edit every film themselves, though they use a pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes, for the editing because, they say, it would be unseemly for their names to appear so many times in the credits. They claim they never fight, and they surround themselves with similarly laid-back people. "We're pretty nonconfrontational," says Joel. "Some of the crew call it Coen Brothers Summer Camp."