Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker), Frances McDormand (C. C. Calhoun), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Veronica Osorio (Carlotta Valdez), Heather Goldenhersh (Natalie), Max Baker (Head Communist Writer), Fisher Stevens (Communist Writer #1), David Krumholtz (Communist Writer #4), John Bluthal (Professor Marcuse), Alex Karpovsky (Mr. Smitrovich), Aramazd Stepanian (Eastern Orthodox Clergyman), Allan Havey (Protestant Clergyman), Robert Pike Daniel (Catholic Clergyman), Ian Blackman (Cuddahy), Geoffrey Cantor (Sid Siegelstein), Christopher Lambert (Arne Seslum).
On the surface, Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers in silly mode for the first time since 2008’s Burn After Reading, and it’s a welcome return. When the Coens decide to make pure comedy, they are better than just about anyone currently working at them, with humor both high and low, but frequently funnier than anything else around. Hail, Caesar has any number of those moments - the out and out funniest, Ralph Fiennes’ refined British director trying to coach Aldren Ehrenreich’s seemingly dimwitted Western star to say “Would that it were so simple” ranks among the funniest moments in any Coen film ever – and when they return to it, 45 minutes later, delivers a hell of kicker as well. This isn’t a Coen movie that has a plot that runs like a fine Swiss watch – there’s not a whole lot of plot in the movie to begin with, and the Coens aren’t above abandoning it for pleasurable diversions when they appear. That isn’t to say that Hail, Caesar is all surface level fun however – there is a level just beneath the surface that I cannot shake, and make the whole movie a richer, deeper experience – and makes the film perhaps the most hopeful film of the Coens career.
The film takes place in 1950s Hollywood – mainly on the lot of Capitol Pictures (the same studio that employed Barton Fink a couple decades previously). The main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who the “Head of Physical Production”, whose job it seems is to put out all the fires and solve all the problems on all the movies, and with all the movie stars. There was a real Eddie Mannix, who was a studio fixer in his day (the 1930s) – but the Coens, as they are wont to do, are basically screwing with the audience by naming him after a real person, who doesn’t have all the much in common with the fictional one here (that Mannix was a hell of a lot worse). The films takes place over a 24 hour period, and there is a hell of lot of problems that Mannix has to deal with – the biggest being that a group calling themselves The Future, has kidnapped Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, just as they are wrapping production on Hail, Caesar, their huge budgeted prestige picture for the year.
It’s no coincidence that the Coen’s open the movie on the image of a large crucifix, with Jesus dying on the cross, nor that the scene then segues into Mannix at confession – talking to an exasperated priest who is tired of seeing him every single day to hear his confession. Mannix is the film’s Christ figure here – taking on the sins of all those around him – none of whom feel the slightest bit of guilt about them – while he himself feels guilty on their behalf. Throughout the day, Mannix has a few conversations with a man from Lockheed –trying to tempt Mannix away from Capitol pictures, with an offer of more money, and less stress – as well as constantly offering Mannix a cigarette, even after he has explained that he’s trying to quit. To drive the point home, the first time we actually see the title of the movie onscreen, it’s not in the context of the title of the Coen movie, but of the film within the film, with the subheading “A Tale of the Christ” – much like 1959’s Ben-Hur. Although Jewish, the Coens have never really shied away from Christian imagery or even Christian messages throughout their career – and Hail, Caesar is no exception. Mannix may not be dying for the sins of the people under his care – but he is taking those sins upon himself.
This, as mentioned above, may just make Hail, Caesar! the most hopeful film of the Coens’ career to this point. The two taglines for their 2007 masterpiece, No Country for Old Men – “No One Gets Away Clean” and “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – sum up their career fairly succinctly. In the Coens’ world, you do not really get away with your sins – you are eventually punished for them one way or another – and sometimes even innocent pay for the sins of others (like William H. Macy’s wife in Fargo, or poor, dumb Donnie in The Big Lebowski). Not in Hail, Caesar! however, where everyone sins, and no one pays for it. Here, it seems, redemption really is possible – Mannix just has to except his fate.
It’s entirely possible however to ignore all of that, and just enjoy Hail, Caesar as the goofy comedy that it is. The Coens’ have always been in love with old movies, often using them as templates for their own, and here they indulge themselves and do a brilliant job of recreating a little bit of everything for the studio era. One of the most memorable scenes in the whole film has nothing to do with anything else in the film, but is glorious just the same – the large scale, hilariously homoerotic dance number featuring a large group of sailors, led by the game as always Channing Tatum, tap dancing with the best of them. Tatum’s is just one of the great, little supporting roles in the film. Tilda Swinton is having a blast as twin gossip columnists, who seemingly appear out of nowhere, one at a time (they hate each other) to throw whoever off their game. George Clooney adds another of his glorious nitwits to his work for the Coens (following O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading) – spending the entire movie in his Hail, Caesar costume, and being introduced to Communism for the first time (it sounds pretty cool to him).Surprisingly, it’s Alden Ehrenreich who practically steals the movie as Hobie Doyle, who we are introduced to as a singing, stunt doing cowboy, before he’s cast in a drawing room comedy. At first, he seems like a complete and total idiot – but he’s actually the only one who can seemingly figure anything out, in his simple sounding, homespun fashion. That doesn’t even mention Scarlett Johansson, adopting the most exaggerated accent of her career (that has had a few), or Jonah Hill in a nearly silent, yet hilarious cameo, or Frances McDormand, as an old school editor. Brolin is wonderful as Mannix – funny and weary at the same time – but the supporting cast helps make the movie as wonderful as it is.
When the Coens go goofy, like Hail Caesar undeniably is, there is a tendency of some to dismiss it as minor Coens – enjoyable, but lightweight and meaningless. I don’t think Hail, Caesar is that. No, it isn’t the masterpiece that several of their films are – but it’s wonderful in its own way, and consistent with the rest of their work. I cannot wait to dive headlong into the film again – as I think there’s more here than is readily apparent on the surface.