There’s something I’ve discovered about the Coen brothers’ movies over the years: You have to discover the humor for yourself. You can’t be told, “This is really funny, you need to watch yourself and you will know that I am right.” Their humor kind of washes over you in such a subtle way and they have a knack for making you feel like you discovered something so clever and so esoteric that there’s just no way anyone else could possibly understand this movie like I understand this movie. Of course this isn’t true. But it feels true and that’s all that really matters.
I am not a big fan of The Big Lebowski. I don’t dislike the film, but I was late to the game seeing it and, by the time I did, I had heard every punchline a million times. (Or, more accurately, probably 15 times. But “a million” sounds much more hyperbolic for the purposes of this point.) The Big Lebowski never felt like something that could be mine. It feels like something that belongs to everyone else.
There’s a scene about halfway through Hail, Caesar! involving a Western called Lazy Ol’ Moon, on the other hand, that feels like it belongs to me. (Even though it doesn’t.) It’s something I discovered on my own and doesn’t belong to the countless people quoting it. It’s mine. I will offer no real details because it’s soon to be yours, too.
Hail, Caesar! is almost a more whimsical companion piece to the Coens’ 2013 masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis — only this time, instead of folk music, it’s about the golden age of film. Instead of “Please Mister Kennedy,” we get Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney performing a showstopper of a dance number that will have people talking about it probably until our nearest star expands and engulfs the Earth in flames. Instead of Al Cody’s album Five & Twenty Questions, we get Cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle’s Lazy Ol’ Moon.
To be honest, I’m not sure whether to call Hail, Caesar! an homage or parody, or a condemnation of Red Scare Hollywood. I guess probably it’s all of those things. Who’s to say, really? (Okay, I guess them.) Regardless, it’s already shot to the top part of my nonexistent “favorite Coen brothers movies” list.
George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a Big Movie Star who’s kidnapped by communists. It’s not a terrible situation for Baird. He likes what a lot of them have to say, but the longer he’s gone, the bigger the cost overruns continue to accumulate on the movie he’s currently filming. Josh Brolin plays a studio executive named Eddie Mannix – a man who works as a “fixer” of these types of situations. His job is to get Baird Whitlock back without the press (portrayed in two separate roles by Tilda Swinton) finding out. (A recurring joke is that rumors of an old scandal involving Baird Whitlock keep swirling while Eddie tries to fix the new scandal.)
While this is all going on, we meet both Hobie Doyle (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) in separate stories that all eventually fuse into one. Hobie Doyle is a Big Movie Star, but doesn’t have a lot of experience with “dialogue.” (This leads to one of my favorite scenes of the last year with his new director, played by Ralph Fiennes.) He’s a good ol’ boy who finagles his way into a whole mess o’ trouble and sort of figures out the grand conspiracy in front of him. Burt Gurney’s role in all of this remains sort of a mystery until later, but, darn it all, that showstopper of a dance number is just the absolute tops. I just want to watch this scene over and over and over again.
And over and over and over again.
And over and over and over again.
And that’s where the homage comes in. Sure, the movie sure feels like it’s making fun of this whole era, but nothing as beautiful as this sequence could exist without a true love for it, too.
(Did I mention I wish I could watch this scene again right now?)
Hail, Caesar! is just one of those things you have to experience. It’s hard to explain. Truth is, if you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t have. Hey, it’s not my fault. I have to write things like this to maintain my full-time employment. But don’t take my word for it. I don’t want you to experience Hail, Caesar! because another person told you it was funny – just like how I experienced The Big Lebowski – instead, just see it and savor it for yourself. Because just like the movies the era this film represents: you know, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.