Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen's 17th directorial effort, opened to $11 million and second place at the box office last weekend. Most observers labeled the returns a disappointment, identifying the film as the brothers' biggest flop since Intolerable Cruelty. But there are a few problems with this analysis. First of all: With a $120 million worldwide take, Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a flop. Second, at only a $22 million budget, it's very likely that when all is said and done, Hail, Caesar! won't be, either.
“It’s not a secret we operate on the fringes, in terms of the kind of stuff we do and the budgets we work with,” Joel Coen told Variety in a rare interview alongside his brother Ethan. And this is true: Despite being household names in any household that goes to the movies more than five times a year, the Coen Brothers remain unique, just as likely to make an Oscar-fêted international hit as a low-grossing art-house curveball.
Even when their films net terrific reviews, they don't always draw audiences in theaters. And then occasionally, they won't just hit a single or a double — they'll make a huge hit. It all depends on the mode they're working in. As a look back through the Coens' filmography reveals, Hail, Caesar!'s opening weekend take isn't atypical for the kinds of movies they make — and their few blockbusters, which set the standard by which they're now held, are more aberrations than anything else. Their work tends to fall on a graph with an X-axis of accessibility and a Y-axis of drama. You can group the Brothers' movies by where they fall on this graph — and as I see it, the Coens’ work can be organized into three distinct categories, which we'll break down below.
(I've categorized their movies based on a combination of factors: budget, genre, tone, and studio. So, while Fargo had an art-house release — albeit the widest in their career to date — it had mainstream accessibility, grafting the Coens' weirdness onto a straightforward neo-noir procedural. Meanwhile, Miller's Crossing is a highly watchable gangster drama with a medium budget, but it also melds comedy and drama with a Hammett-indebted meta-sensibility that skewers the genre to a degree that makes it less easily appreciated by the casual viewer. In short: It's subjective, no question, but hear me out.)
ART HOUSE: Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Man Who Wasn’t There; A Serious Man; Inside Llewyn Davis
Let’s start with the art house. It’s difficult to separate this grouping into comedy and drama, as anyone who’s ever seen Barton Fink and A Serious Man would know; as funny as these films are, they’re both defiantly dark and moralistic, shuffling tone and temperament from scene to scene. This is half of what makes them less accessible, the other half being the narrower subjects: Hollywood screenwriting, Judaism. Meanwhile, Blood Simple was a lean thriller that launched their careers; The Man Who Wasn’t There was a faithful neo-noir released in black and white; and Inside Llewyn Davis, though often very funny, is a decidedly harsh character study.
Apart from content, the Coens’ art-house movies have in common modest budgets, limited theatrical releases, and low grosses. Other than Inside Llewyn Davis, none of them reached more than 300 theaters (and that only peaked at around 700), and only one of them — again, Llewyn Davis — made more than $10 million at the box office (and it's not like it made much more, as it landed at $13 million domestic). And they’re all critically beloved, with cult followings and militant admirers. When the Coens work in this mode, they tend to delight fans and cinephiles, but the work is often too minor for wide audiences or the Academy — only one of this group, A Serious Man, was nominated for Best Picture.
MAINSTREAM DRAMA: Fargo; No Country for Old Men; True Grit
This is the Coens’ most successful category. Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit were all nominated for Best Picture; No Country for Old Men and True Grit both made more than $170 million worldwide. The Coens are more than capable of working within the studio system at the highest levels of filmmaking, and these are the movies that prove it.
Many directors would, having found this stride, choose to remain in it — and that the Coens do not might be the strongest indication of their idiosyncrasy from a commercial and artistic perspective. The brothers often seem to willfully avoid the kind of success they found with No Country for Old Men and True Grit, both action-filled Westerns, one modern, one period, based on famed American source material. And while Fargo in many ways has more in common with Miller’s Crossing and A Serious Man than it does No Country and True Grit, tone-wise, it skips the existential malaise and philosophical investigations of the former pair in favor of a straightforward crime-thriller plot.
MAINSTREAM COMEDY: Raising Arizona; The Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Intolerable Cruelty; The Ladykillers; Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy; Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! is the seventh Coens film that you could strictly refer to as a comedy, meaning that out-and-out comedy is the category the Coens choose to work in the most. It’s also their most varied: It contains their only critical failures, as well as their most widely beloved movie.
Of the previous six, three — Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading — were critically and commercially successful, with O Brother snagging a screenplay nom at the Oscars and Burn After Reading pulling in $163 million worldwide. Intolerable Cruelty reached lesser heights than those of the previous three, but still managed to do respectably ($120 million worldwide). And one, The Big Lebowski, struggled upon release with both audiences and critics, grossing only $17 million at the box office. But over the next decade, it became an object of adoration, inspiring a festival, a religion, and an enormous cult following.
Then there are the two movies the Coens have made that could be regarded as failures. The Ladykillers managed $75 million worldwide but is generally thought of as the brothers’ worst movie, with a 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And The Hudsucker Proxy, which has a 58 percent rating, was their worst bomb at the box office, making less than $3 million on a reported budget of $40 million.
Where does that leave Hail, Caesar!'s $11 million? Well, it's too soon to tell if it is the next Intolerable Cruelty or the next Ladykillers. Released in back-to-back years, both also grossed $12 million in their opening weekends. Ladykillers actually ended up making more domestically, grossing $39 million to Intolerable Cruelty's $35 million. The key to that sentence is "domestically," as Cruelty went on to make more than $84 million internationally — more than what The Ladykillers made in total. International potential, along with the ability to get actors to work for cheap — and, you know, being two of the greatest filmmakers alive — is the secret to the Coens' permanent green light. It is also, very likely, the equation by which Hail, Caesar! will end up looking just fine in the long run.