Hail, Caesar! isn’t as compelling as No Country for Old Men or as smart as Barton Fink. It’s not as funny as The Big Lebowski or as absurdist as A Serious Man. Rather than peppering its subject matter with the stuff of dreams as we’ve come to expect from the Coen brothers, it frames Old Hollywood as a dream in and of itself. It’s currently sitting at a 47 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, despite a cozy 79 percent and “Certified Fresh” rating from critics. The easy explanation for these numbers is that the average audience member “just doesn’t get it”—that if you don’t go in with a solid understanding and nostalgia for post-war Hollywood, you won’t appreciate it. I’m not sure that’s true. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo delighted audiences, despite most of them having no knowledge of early filmmaking. The Artist won best picture at the Oscars, but the average moviegoer probably can’t tell you the intricacies of the birth of the talkie.
It’s also not that the movie is bad—the Coens are master screenwriters; everything is intentional, the characters are funny and relatable. I see the main failing of the film as its lack of surrealism: Nothing ever occurs that doesn’t have a logical explanation or resolution. All the magic is left to the moviemaking. For someone with that Old Hollywood nostalgia, it might be enough to carry a film, but for most audience members, it’s not enough. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I think audiences are getting tired of self-congratulatory filmmaking.
Hail, Caesar! comes only a few months after the release of Trumbo, a white male legacy film about the screenwriting blacklist of the 1950s that did nobody justice. It deals with many similar themes, including eccentric directors, interesting actors, and communism in the screenwriting community. While the Coens deal with these more appropriately and in a far more entertaining way than Trumbo, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve seen all this before. It’s not that audiences don’t like Old Hollywood, it’s that they’re finally getting bored of the narcissistic rehashing of a bygone era that wasn’t even that great, if we’re being honest. While the glitz and glamour and big personalities are fun to look back on, the rampant sexism, inherent racism, and overwhelming whiteness of the industry isn’t charming. It’s even more disturbing when one considers how much of that prejudice has persisted.
This isn’t a review of Hail, Caesar! —it’s a fun movie despite its flaws, and a welcome change from the usual drivel that fills the studio rosters post-awards season. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to an industry that has been around for long enough to memorialize itself onscreen. We’ve seen plenty of self-congratulatory love letters to the celluloid epics of days gone by. If we’re going to keep looking backwards, at least lose the rose-colored lenses. Revisionism isn’t honest, and it only prevents change from occurring in the present. Or, better yet, look to stories that never got the coverage they deserved instead of the same old gossip we’ve heard a thousand times before. There’s more to classic movie making than white guys and cigarettes.