Earlier this week I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! at a critic’s screening and loved it. It was funny, fleet on its feet, and composed of so many references to Hollywood’s Golden Age that I imagine Karina Longworth will need at least one entire podcast to unpack them all. (It’s also a rare Coen Brothers film, in that it directly references another of their works: The film studio of Hail, Caesar! is Capitol Pictures, where Barton Fink met his destiny.)
I haven’t written a review for Hail, Caesar! yet, and I may not, seeing as the film was screened for critics after my print deadline. (Sadly, that’s an all-too-common occurrence in the nation’s 40th-largest television market, 41st-largest radio market and 61st-largest newspaper market; there’s simply not enough media professionals in town for the studios to justify earlier, solely media-targeted screenings. Instead, critics are lumped in with radio contest winners.) But I was curious to know how the film was being received, so I did something I almost never do before the review is written: I Googled up Hail, Caesar! to get an idea of its critical consensus.
What I saw surprised me: The first few reviews weren’t reviews, but ordered critical lists of all 17 of the Coen Brothers’ films, with Hail, Caesar! ranked within. (Yahoo! ranked the film at number 15; Vulture put it at number 11; The Wrap placed it at number 9; and The Atlantic ranked it at number 8, as did The Washington Post.) For the life of me, I can’t think of another filmmaker who’s received such treatment so soon after they’ve released a new film—not Scorsese, not Spielberg, not even Michael Bay. I’ve seen it done for animation studios, like Pixar; critics have no problem making that call when a Cars 2 comes out, because to their minds animation isn’t true auteur filmmaking; in their heart-of-hearts, it is product, nothing more. Sometimes it’s good product, they’ll say. But if it comes down to a Beauty and the Beast vs. a JFK, there’s just no contest; JFK deserves more critical weight and respect, they’ll say, because it was made by and stars actual people.
I’d like to attribute the rash of Coen Brothers rankings to critics’ unmasked enthusiasm for their films; even their one flat-out failure (The Ladykillers) is fun to watch. But here’s the thing: Ranking a filmmaker’s latest film within their catalog three days before general release is fucking stupid. Especially so for the Coens, who have seen several of their films—The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There come to mind—grow in stature over the years. One of these days, amuse yourself by going back and reading the contemporaneous reviews of The Big Lebowski. (Roger Ebert gave Lebowski three stars in 1998, calling it “genial, shambling comedy.” In 2010, he named it one of his “Great Movies,” and bumped it up to four stars. Such critical reappraisals have been fairly common with Lebowski.)
But here’s the thing: I don’t blame the critics, who at this point are blessedly lucky to still have jobs. Nor do I blame websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, which reduce a movie’s worth to crowdsourced numbers. I blame us, because the first question we’re inclined to ask about an auteur’s new work is how it rates in comparison to their other shit. Such comparisons used to be exclusive to our conversations with friends, but we have been encouraged, via websites like Rotten Tomatoes—wow, I guess I do blame them!—to seek out these comparisons at the media level. That’s fine for something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which most of you probably would have seen even if I told you the film ended with a real-life punch to the kidneys.
But for artists like the Coens, whose films are so different from each other that a Lebowski fan could conceivably have despised No Country For Old Men, a numbered list is dangerous. Their commercial clout isn’t such that they can open whatever the hell they want and expect to work with the same studio twice. The Coens still need the help of their critics. They still need people at the door saying, “No, seriously, come in. If you liked that other one, you’ll like this one.” The last thing they need is for their every moved to be measured against their changing selves, and our ever-changing perception of who they are. Who does need anything like that, come to think of it?