Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

Art, Simple

Like many of the Coen brothers’ more fringe movies, Hail, Caesar! is a bit opaque. It asks its questions and it wallows in the non-answers, an intentional choice that is frustrating in the moment but rewarding in the long term. I like the movie more on Monday morning than I did on Thursday night. This is the kind of movie that feels like it will grow on you – the more you consider its questions and the more you appreciate its pleasures, the more you can appreciate the quiet high-wire act that the Coens pull off.

Ultimately, it feels like the Coen brothers have finally gone and made their “movie about movies,” a chapter in the career of every filmmaker who works long enough to get around to it. They’ve dabbled in this territory before with Barton Fink, which painted Hollywood and the film industry as a literal Hell where creative people are imprisoned and subjugated to all kind of indignities. They’ve explored the creative process with Inside Llewyn Davis, a complex portrait of artistry and integrity that ultimately lands hard on the side of cynicism – if you’re not willing to sell out just a little bit and if you’re not in the right place at the right time, you’re screwed.

Barton Fink

But Hail, Caesar! is more blunt about the creative process and more appreciative of Hollywood, even when it gets ugly. There’s sad, underhanded stuff going on in the film (Scarlett Johansson‘s DeeAnna Moran is an echo of too many real-world starlets), but the whole mood of the film is downright giddy. The Coen brothers love the sordid history of the movies and they want you to love it with them. After all, this community of grotesques and weirdos and Communists and cowboys and gangsters and artists didn’t just wallow in depravity and work to undermine each other – they made great goddamn movies.

There’s a reason Hail, Caesar! so frequently stops in its tracks for extended scenes from films within the film, most of them representing genres that are essentially dead. Watching Channing Tatum song-and-dance his way through a horny sailor musical is a sublime recreation of a cliche, a reminder that there’s joy in a genre and a set-up that feels like a punchline today. The same goes for Johansson’s aquatic musical number, Ehrenreich’s goofy western, and even Clooney’s overwrought Bible epic. The Coens exactingly recreate these dead styles and luxuriate in them because they love movies, damn it! They love movies and they want you to love them, too. Beyond the frame are stars in pain, angry directors, anguished studio heads and all manner of human drama, but these people were able to shuffle it to the side to create something beautiful and special.

Now that’s movie magic.

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