Like so many of their films, Coen Brothers obscure but lovely new period piece, The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug, is both a shaggy dog story and an exercise in inertia, or more properly, a lack thereof. Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a renowned figure of indeterminate but impressive background, lives alone, cloistered with a fortune of equally uncertain vintage, uninterested and otherwise withdrawn from the world outside. The “desolation” of the title is a fair portrait of his state of mind; like so many Coen protagonists, he is at once self-involved and depressed—his pomposity cohabits with anomie, and more than anything, he is suffused with an air of melancholy depression.
Indie filmmakers of a more ordinary Sundance-circuit variety might take this as the template for a quirky tale of mild uplift; surely a girl would be introduced, an indiepop score sounded; a homecoming home-come. The Coens, though, have darker interests. As was the case in A Serious Man, where they mischievously combined their own Midwestern Jewish upbringing with a pastiche-retelling of the Book of Job, here too their subject is Jewishness—in this case, they have chosen for their setting England in the mid-Nineteenth Century; indeed, there are startling echoes of Daniel Deronda throughout.
Like Deronda, Smaug is of some vaguely aristocratic extraction, perhaps having been fostered by another wealthy nobleman. His parentage is unclear. In an interesting twist on Eliot’s tale, Smaug’s love interest is not a beautiful young woman, but rather a midget homosexual circus performer, played with charm by an almost unrecognizable Martin Freeman. The two find themselves frequently harried by a phantasmagorical collection of Jewish gargoyles—Zionists with an eye on recapturing a homeland that may or may not have ever existed. The English, meanwhile, are equally grotesque, portrayed as a group of impossibly lovely but thoroughly effete, decadent, and largely closeted inverted racists. What other directors in the relative American mainstream would risk such stylistic outrageousness in this age of $200 million corporate sequels?
Again, as in A Serious Man, the Coens have created an ambiguous ending; and as was the case in Deronda, there is a hint that Smaug intends to “go east” as he departs the comfort of his longtime home. After True Grit, their appealing but relatively insubstantial 2010 Western, The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug represents a real return to form.