It’s time to get over my belief that I don’t care for the Coen Brothers. I keep telling myself this, because I don’t think The Big Lebowski is the greatest film ever made, because I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing, because ... hell, I forget all the reasons. But Hail, Caesar! is the fifth movie by the brothers that I’ve given at least an 8/10 rating. So clearly I like a lot of their work.
I don’t know why Hail, Caesar! appealed to me, for it had some of the same things I usually complain about with the Coens. They preen over the notion that they know more than we do, and too often their movies turn into “spot the reference”. But there was some real love for movies here, almost resembling joy, and when that occurs, I’m glad the writer/directors are smart. Unless you have seen as many movies as the Coens, you won’t come close to getting every reference here, but I think you can enjoy the movie even if you don’t spot a single one.
Because Hail, Caesar! takes place at a movie studio, there is a legitimate reason for showing different kinds of movies being made. The dance number, “No Dames!”, is a particular delight, with Channing Tatum showing off his dance moves in a role that “resembles” Gene Kelly. (There is a lot of “resembling” going on ... Tilda Swinton plays twin columnists that are some odd combination of Hedda Hopper, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby, Scarlett Johansson “is” Esther Williams, and George Clooney is ... well, he’s a blend of too many to count, Charlton Heston is probably closest.) The plot is less important than it seems. Manohla Dargis gets it right when she says the film “at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic, and dramatic scenes.”
Just in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, they also toss in a bunch of screenwriters who turn to Communism (the film takes place in the early-50s). They brag about how they sneak lefty propaganda into their films, and their mentor is “Professor Marcuse” who “is” Herbert Marcuse. At the beginning of the movie, Clooney is in costume for a film, Hail, Caesar!, that looks a lot like Ben-Hur. He is kidnapped by the writers, and later returns to the studio, where he shoots the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! in the movie Hail, Caesar! At which point you realize Clooney has been wearing his Roman costume the whole movie.
Hail, Caesar! is amiable and moves along with ease. I have yet to see a Coens film that matched Fargo, but Hail, Caesar! is one of their better ones. Oh, and it’s Oscar nomination is for Production Design.