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What makes the Coen brothers' movies so great — and hard to classify

The duo's latest film, Hail, Caesar!, captures the essence of why their work is so consistently delightful.

George Clooney in the Coen brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar!
George Clooney in the Coen brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, the 17th film from the writer-director-producer team of Joel and Ethan Coen, is a zany comic romp through old Hollywood that's loosely — very loosely — based on the real life of Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix. Like so many Coen brothers films, it’s mannered and absurd, with telling period trappings and memorably quirky details, as well as a handful of genuinely breathtaking set-piece sequences. Reviews so far have been generally positive but not wildly enthusiastic, suggesting that it’s a minor film in the Coen oeuvre.

I wouldn’t rank Hail, Caesar! among the very best of the Coen brothers’ films, but it’s better than a lot of the reviews suggest — a frequently hilarious, devious jumble that takes on capitalism and Marxism, the business of Hollywood and the purpose of art, the relevance of religion and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. And even if it’s not essential to the Coens' canon, it captures the wry essence of their three-decade career and what makes their movies so consistently delightful.

Most of the Coen brothers' films are genre mashups that don't fit into any established category

Classifying Coen brothers films is tough. In general, the duo tends to make thrillers and comedies, although those genres frequently shade into each other, and some of their films don’t quite seem to fit any recognizable category at all. Instead, it’s best to think of Coen brothers movies as existing in their own unique genre, a separate movie world with its own rules and sensibility that exists independently of mainstream Hollywood.

That’s fitting for a pair of filmmakers whose first movies were funded entirely outside of the traditional studio system. The duo’s debut, the noirish 1984 thriller Blood Simple, relied on investments from local businesspeople near their hometown in Minnesota, as well as additional backers in New York and Texas, where the movie was filmed. The brothers, who’d grown up making home movies together, sold their movie to backers based on a short trailer they’d created to generate interest in the project; the movie was essentially manually crowdfunded, long before the age of Kickstarter.

Raising money that way meant making movies on the cheap, and even after the Coens gained critical attention and respect with films like Raising Arizona and Fargo and then moved on to making films with more traditional studio financing, they continued to keep their budgets trim.

This thrifty approach has allowed the brothers a huge amount of freedom to make unconventional films that don’t always have obvious commercial appeal (although their films have generally made modest profits). As Joel Coen told the New York Times in 2013, "Nobody wants to look stupid or lose lots of money. On the other hand, they’re not afraid of doing other stuff if they can trust you to keep it reasonable. So, yeah, they kind of let us wander off without any adult supervision and do what we want."

Much of the chaos stems from the Coens' collaboration — with both each other and their trusted cohorts

For the Coens, doing what they want means working with a regular crew of highly skilled collaborators. Folks like composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins are justifiably celebrated as some of the best artisans in the movie business, and their contributions transform even the lightest of Coen brothers films into rich exercises in classic cinematic craftsmanship. There’s a baseline level of excellence.

Doing what they want also means placing an emphasis on complex plots driven by chaos and confusion, as well as knotty dialog that twists and turns and circles back on itself, often playing with misunderstandings and missing words in ways that are both comedic and horrific. It's all a result of the brothers’ highly collaborative process. They write their movies jointly, hashing out scripts while they take turns sitting at the computer, rather than splitting up scenes or reviewing each other’s drafts. And in interviews, they often seem to finish each other's sentences, speaking as if they share one mind.

That can give their pictures a certain inscrutability. Even with their most somber films, watching a Coen brothers movie can feel like watching an elaborate inside joke that you’re never quite sure if you’re in on.

Think of the narrator at the beginning of The Big Lebowski (the voice of Sam Elliott). He loses his train of thought in the middle of a monologue about how the main character — the Dude — doesn’t make any sense, then reappears later in the film, sitting at a bowling alley bar, to gently suggest the audience "take comfort" in the Dude’s self-description, "the Dude abides."

Fargo begins with a title card declaration: "This is a true story." It’s not in any way, and the movie makes no attempt to explain this. But the straight-faced, upfront assertion that it’s all true gives the film — an ironic crime story about a kidnapping gone wrong — a subtle sense of real-life tragedy. It helps transform the movie, which in the hands of some other director could have been a relatively conventional dark-comedy thriller, into a parable of the mystery of human suffering.

Indeed, the Coens seem drawn to stories of misery and suffering, of personal tragedies both ironic and awful. They also seem drawn to the mysteries of existence and character, life’s endless unknowables and the funny and terrible ways they manifest.

The Coens are famously averse to explaining or even discussing the meaning of any of their films, but Elliott’s fourth-wall-breaking admonishment to the audience to take comfort in the idea that the Dude abides — which is to say he exists without some clear and systematic explanation, and we should simply accept as much — is about as close as you’ll ever get to a Coen brothers mission statement.

Burn After Reading, an underrated spy farce that has aged particularly well, ends on a similar note of darkly comic confusion, in which two peripheral characters puzzle over what happened, and realize they learned nothing except not to repeat their mistakes. The problem is they don’t know what those mistakes were.

This idea of human mystery is both a personal fascination and a dramatic strategy for the Coens. At times, you’ll even get them to admit it. In a recent interview with Guillermo del Toro released along with the Criterion edition of Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel Coen described the allure of enigma characters: "It’s both why you’re sort of constantly engaged with them and trying to figure them out, and also why they’re sort of reading in a strong way," he said. "You don’t want to explain them. You don’t want to get the key to them. Because that’s going to rob the characters of their power." In a weird way, understanding this is the key to understanding the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! has all the elements of a classic Coen brothers film

Hail, Caesar! has all the familiar trappings of a Coen brothers movie: There’s a labyrinthine plot involving Josh Brolin’s golden-age Hollywood studio fixer, a kidnapped movie star named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a gaggle of self-serving communist screenwriters, a fussy movie director named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a foul-mouthed actress (Scarlett Johansson), a song-and-dance star (Channing Tatum), a dim but well-meaning cowboy actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who's pressed into service in a prestige film, and twin sister gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton.

Burwell and Deakins are both on the bill too, and Deakins, in particular, gives Hail, Caesar! a vibe that is both contemplative and ironic, with stark yet often funny compositions that emphasize the loneliness of the characters and their inability to connect with the larger world.

Despite the large cast of well-known actors and the intricately designed period setting, the film cost only $22 million to make. That’s not pocket change, but in an age of $200 million blockbusters and star-driven prestige films that run well into nine figures, it’s a remarkably inexpensive production.

The dialogue is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and densely philosophical, especially when the communist screenwriters appear, and it’s mixed with lowbrow physical comedy (Whitlock’s persistent inability to sit down due to a prop sword, Doyle’s impossibly acrobatic horse-riding stunts). In both the high and the lowball moments, the Coens indulge their goofball tendencies, and parts of the movie play like live-action cartoons.

There’s an aura of screwball irreverence to the entire film. At one point a production assistant asks an actor playing Jesus — who's been hanging from a cross on set for hours — whether he’s a principal or an extra. The exhausted actor replies that he’s a principal … he thinks. It’s a funny moment, and a telling one. For the Coens, even big questions of theology resolve in existential comedy and uncertainty. You can never really be sure about anything, so you might as well laugh at as much of it as you can.

The whole thing plays like an exercise in private amusement by two very strange, very smart individuals. Honestly, I’m not sure I quite got all of it, but I kind of loved it anyway — which I imagine is just how the Coen brothers would want it.

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