With their latest, the Coen brothers have made one awesome movie about the making of several terrible movies, including an Esther Williams-style splashfest, a costume drama starring a hopelessly miscast aw-shucks Western star (played by the hilariously deadpan Alden Ehrenreich) and a Channing Tatum-led, seamen-filled musical that’s the most homoerotic thing to happen to the Navy since the volleyball scene in “Top Gun.”
Assuming “Hail, Caesar!” (God, I love a movie with an exclamation point!) takes place in 1946 — the first Bikini Atoll test figures into events — that means it’s the year Hollywood released “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Gilda,” all of which rightfully are held up as examples of the studio system’s Golden Age. Start scanning down the IMDB list, though, and you realize you’re wading through a lot of forgotten stuff you’ve never seen because, well, it’s mostly forgotten: “Driftin’ River” and “Specter of the Rose” and “She-Wolf of London.” Actually, “She-Wolf of London” sounds pretty good.
Here’s what “Hail, Caesar Exclamation Point” gets absolutely right: Nostalgia is a tricky filter. I look back with great fondness on the Jessica McClintock dress I wore to my junior prom in 1994; however, it would be a bad idea for me to put it on now. Not only because I would fear for the safety of all around me, as I assume a zipper being hurtled through the air by the force of middle-age back fat is a dangerous projectile, but also because it no longer reflects who I am.
It’s easy to look back at any part of the past and say, “Yeah, that’s how it should be today.” “Hail, Caesar!” uses the uniformly terrible fake movies within it to show that while we all remember 1946 for stuff like “The Yearling” and “Notorious,” it also gave us “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman.”
For nostalgia to be, well, nostalgic, it has to filter out all the crap. The mists of time cover a multitude of sins: “Hail, Caesar!” is about the artistic ones, but it’s important to remember that, in real life, the social and political errors of the time also get lost in the fog. It’s never a good strategy to use a picture of the past to illustrate what the future should look like. Before saying you want to make something great again — with “great” meaning “the way it was” — it’s important to make sure the way it actually was isn’t just the way you’re remembering it.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby