Filmmaking siblings Ethan and Joel Coen can claim one of the most distinctive and consistently inventive bodies of work in American cinema, but their movies — which can feel profound or featherweight, depending on perspective — often divide the critics.
Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!" — a broadly comic ode to 1950s Hollywood — is receiving generally positive notices, but critics disagree on whether the film measures up to the Coens’ weightier classics.
The Times’ Kenneth Turan is a big fan, writing that “this droll tribute to and spoof of Hollywood past amuses from beginning to end with its site-specific re-creation of the studio system and the movies that made it famous. A hipster mash note to the way things used to be, it will put a smile on your face and keep it there for the duration.”
For David Ehrlich at Slate, “It’s a Coen brothers movie, and one of their very best.” The movie “may be too light on its feet to match the tidal pull of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ or ‘A Serious Man,’ but it nevertheless takes you to the same place. If the Coen brothers’ dramas are cautionary tales, their comedies are veritable how-to guides for people who can’t help but enjoy a mirthless chuckle at the humility of human existence. Yeah, the joke is on us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.”
“Yes, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is superb,” writes Richard Brody of The New Yorker. The film is “a comedy, and a scintillating, uproarious one, filled with fast and light touches of exquisite incongruity in scenes that have the expansiveness of relaxed precision, performed and timed with the spontaneity of jazz.”
Variety’s Justin Chang is similarly effusive, calling it “an expression of movie love at its purest.” He writes that “this gorgeously crafted romp through the backlots and Malibu enclaves of Hollywood’s Golden Age tosses off plenty of eccentric comedy and musical razzle-dazzle before taking on richer, more ruminative dimensions, ultimately landing on the funny-sad question of whether life is but a dream factory.”
Offering more measured praise, Manohla Dargis at the New York Times calls “Hail, Caesar!” “one of those diversions that [the Coens] turn out in between masterworks and duds. It’s a typically sly, off-center comedy, once again set against the machinery of the motion-picture business. And, as usual with the Coens, it has more going on than there might seem, including in its wrangling over God and ideology, art and entertainment.”
The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky calls the film “a grab-bag of ideas in various stages of formation,” and gives it a B-minus grade. He notes that “like so many of the brothers’ later films, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ ends where it started, with the characters having huffed and gnashed their teeth and changed nothing — and whereas their great movies side with loser heroes, turning failures into studies of people struggling to hold on in the face of apparent meaninglessness, this one seems to be out to teach them a lesson to leave well enough alone. To all those who would characterize the Coens as smug misanthropes: Enjoy this bounty of ammunition.”
Though similarly unswayed by the film as a whole, Stephanie Zacharek at Time magazine emphasizes the Coens’ crowd-pleasing side. “The Coens clearly wanted to fill ‘Hail, Caesar!’ with the wonderful trifles contemporary movies no longer have a place for: Silly hats on women, Esther Williams-style water extravaganzas, dancing sailors. Their love for these things is one of their most charming and admirable traits. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ doesn’t completely hang together. But [Scarlett] Johansson in a mermaid’s tail? Really, why else make movies — or go to them?”
Among the star-studded cast, relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich was singled out by critics for his performance as cowboy-turned-actor Hobie Doyle. Turan writes that he’s “the best of the bunch,” Vishnevetsky calls him “downright revelatory” and Chang notes that “he’s astonishingly good at playing a bad actor.”