Hail, Caesar! is a funny and madcap, if unfocused, farcical salute to Golden Age Hollywood from the Coen Brothers.
Hail, Caesar! explores a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), whose official title is “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures – but who, in reality, is a “fixer” who spends his days controlling the studio’s public image and keeping a tight lid on any potential scandals revolving around Capitol’s A-list acting talent. Whether he’s orchestrating a relationship for Capitol’s prized western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) or finding a new husband for swimmer/starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) before the press gets wind of her unexpected pregnancy, Eddie always has a full plate – something that doesn’t exactly help Eddie to quit smoking and inspires him to make frequent trips to confession, much to his local priest’s consternation.
When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) – one of Capitol’s biggest stars and the lead for the studio’s upcoming big-budget epic, Hail, Casear! A Tale of the Christ – is kidnapped and held for ransom, Eddie thus springs into action to make certain that Baird is returned safely and Hail, Caesar! continues to move forward on schedule. Question is, who are Baird’s mysterious kidnappers – a group that refers to itself as simply “The Future” – and just what are they hoping to accomplish with their illicit scheme?
The latest original creation from the minds of Oscar-winning filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, Hail, Caesar! shares much in common with the Coens’ previous work – with perhaps the most obvious examples for comparison being The Hudsucker Proxy (a screwball comedy pastiche like Hail, Caesar!) and Barton Fink, as the latter also satirizes Golden Age Hollywood and even features the same fictional film studio, Capitol Pictures. However, Hail, Caesar! in many ways bears an equally strong resemblance to the Coens’ dark comedy/drama A Serious Man, in terms of themes and ideas; though, the former is far more light-hearted and playful (if also less substantial and organized) than the latter.
Hail, Caesar! is pitch-perfect when it comes to paying homage to the popular films that were released under the Hollywood studio system around the mid-20th century; whether it be a Busby Berkley-style dance sequence (set in a pool) or a Gene Kelly-inspired musical number led by a tap-dancing Channing Tatum (as blonde-haired Capitol star Burt Gurney), the Coens and their frequent cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins, deftly recreate the colors, tone, and overall aesthetic of Golden Age Hollwood fare throughout the film. At the same time, like every Coen Brothers film pastiche, everything is played with a wink and an off-beat quirky touch, even as the Coens and Deakins weave in darker elements – like Noir lighting schemes/imagery, as well as visual motifs that allude to Eddie Mannix’s religious guilt and concerns – that bring out the film’s serious side. Couple that with great historical production design as well as costumes and it’s fair to say: Hail, Caesar! is as gorgeous-looking as a Coen Brothers movie can get and serves up its fair share of excellent visual comedy too… even if the substance isn’t so much there, this time around.
Part of the reason Hail, Caesar! is such an odd duck (even for the Coen Brothers) can be attributed to the wide net the film casts while examining its 1950s setting; touching on everything from Soviet Union and post-Atomic bomb era paranoia to the structure of the old Hollywood studio system, while at the same time drawing parallels to the present day world. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the various puzzle pieces of Hail, Caesar! don’t add up to an especially cohesive whole – and many of the ideas and concepts in play here have been better (and more carefully) explored in prior Coen Brothers films. Hail, Caesar! entertains as a cheeky love letter to old Hollywood, but something like A Serious Man probably holds up better after multiple viewings and further analysis for related reasons.
Similarly, the Coen Brothers’ screenplay for Hail, Caesar! is loosely structured to a fault and often goes off on extended tangents – in the process, serving up a string of sequences that are generally funny (if only for their sheer absurdity), but carry on for too long individually. This is partly intentional, since the whole narrative is presented as being (quite literally) just another day in Eddie Mannix’s life; and when all is said and done, Hail, Caesar! resembles a “much ado about nothing” farce in the vein of Burn After Reading, more than anything else. Even so, the Hail, Caesar! narrative is most successful as a series of loosely-connected screwball comedy throwback sequences, less so when it aspires to use Eddie’s day to day experiences (and the role that his Catholic faith and commitment to the “cause” of show business play in his actions) to create a more meaningful thematic through-line.
Hail, Caesar! reunites the Coen Brothers with many an actor who has collaborated with the pair before – as such, the ensemble cast by and large wind up earning high marks in the Coen Brothers school of comedy performance (somewhere between comically over the top caricature and more grounded). Josh Brolin, who gets the most screen time out of the whole cast, plays the quick-thinking Eddie Mannix – loosely inspired by real-life Hollywood “fixer” Joseph ‘Eddie’ Mannix – and handles the character’s witty repartee and moments of vulnerability alike with aplomb. Next, in terms of screen time is Alden Ehrenreich, who gets to show off his comedic chops (and riff on his own heartthrob appeal in films like Beautiful Creatures) with his turn as simple-minded western star (and rodeo specialist) Hobie Doyle.
George Clooney’s role in Hail, Caesar! is smaller than his turns in Coen Brothers movie past (Burn After Reading aside), but Baird Whitlock – a popular A-lister who’s not as intelligent as he fashions himself to be – is yet another fine addition to Clooney’s body of work playing dimwits for the Coen Brothers. Most of the rest of the cast only show up in a few scenes, either playing characters who are clearly designed to be comical takes on real-life Hollywood icons (Scarlett Johansson as Esther Williams-esque DeeAnna Moran, Ralph Fiennes playing the Laurence Olivier-inspired Laurence Laurentz) and/or oddball types likely inspired by real people, but who feel like pure Coen Brothers creations (Tilda Swinton as the twin gossip magazine writers Thora and Thessaly Thacke, and so forth). Most of the film’s characters aren’t developed beyond being entertainingly two-dimensional personalities, but that’s appropriate given that Hail, Caesar! is foremost a farce – and the cast seems to be enjoying themselves, hamming it up as is called for.
Hail, Caesar! is a funny and madcap, if unfocused, farcical salute to Golden Age Hollywood from the Coen Brothers. The movie may not be as substantial nor innovative as some of the filmmaking siblings’ previous work, but it’s a well-crafted comical romp nonetheless – one that provides the entertainment value of an old-fashioned musical, showbiz melodrama, Noir mystery, and a screwball comedy all rolled into one package. While its mixture of decidedly off-beat humor and “inside baseball” perspective on Hollywood’s Golden Age doesn’t exactly make the movie an easy sell to mainstream audiences, Hail, Caesar! nonetheless serves up pretty much everything that cinephiles could ask for (and have come to expect) from a new Coen Brothers comedy.
Hail, Caesar is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 106 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
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