MOVIE – Hail, Caesar! isn’t the masterpiece we will remember for a long time from the Coen Brothers’. It’s rather an homage to Hollywood of the 1950s; and also more of a niche film than a mainstream comedy. It’s rather a rare opportunity for Joel & Ethan Coen to use this fascinating era as a cinematic theme park.
Thanks to Hail, Caesar! the filmmakers can experiment in ‘50s-style productions and incorporate look-alike scenes from a Busby Berkeley replica, a Gene Kelly-like musical, a Cecil B. DeMille-influenced “Prestige” Ben-Hur/The Ten Commandments “epic” movie, and some hokey cowboy movies.
Still, unfortunately, the film doesn’t offer the same level of laughter provided by movies like Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski even if it’s a bona fide comedy. As an alternative, the movie is happy to make fun of the familiar and beloved production of an industry that was fighting against the attraction of television. While there are lots of funny one-liners and quirky moments, but the goal is more to provoke chuckles than laughs.
A real life film mogul’s imagined story
According to the story very loosely based on actual events Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the president of Capitol Pictures and Hail Caesar! Narrates a day in his life. The movie starts with a trip to a confessional. That is apparently an ordinary routine; the annoyed priest tells Mannix that he comes to the Church… a little too often. Still, Eddie has a lot on his plate. One of his star actors, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been abducted by “Communists” who demand the hefty sum of a $100,000 ransom.
“Hail, Caesar! works best if we see it as a series of loosely related vignettes.”
“America’s Sweetheart” DeeAnna Moran (played by an excellent Scarlett Johansson who manages to be both extremely attractive and coarse at the same time) is pregnant out of wedlock. To a cover the story Mannix has to find out something to protect her reputation.
On the other hand respected director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown since he’s required to cast the simpleton cowboy matinee idol Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his latest character-driven piece.
Gossip columnist sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are badgering Eddie for exclusives while he’s weighing an offer to leave the “circus” and join Lockheed Martin.
The lack of a strong narrative is perhaps the film’s weakest aspect. The story isn’t bad per se, but the Coens are so absorbed in their caricature that they fail to invest a lot of effort in the connective tissue.
The film’s numerous plot lines permanently threaten to sink the ship, but the Coens still manages to keep everything afloat. It’s an impressive accomplishment and one that can only be managed by a pair of filmmakers unafraid by risks. At one point of the movie, a character defines the movie business as a “circus,” and in that scenario, the Coens would be guys swallowing swords while they jump through a ring of fire. It’s an amazing thing to behold indeed, so long as you never really question the point.
Hail, Caesar! works best if we see it as a series of loosely related vignettes. It’s great fun to watch George Clooney do a funny Charlton Heston caricature or Channing Tatum step into Gene Kelly’s tap shoes. The movie’s production values are excellent and, while watching these “movies-within-a-movie”, we feel like looking at pieces from lost 1950s artifacts that someone found and restored. There’s a true pleasure in this experience if perhaps not for the average multiplex-goer who will expect a better-made story to tie everything together.
Still, the Coens subtlety is to be noted: they are overtly satirical with their ’50s pastiches, which was a pretty good decision. They thankfully avoid the Mel Brooks clichés and instead stay true to the tropes and approaches of the time. The real whimsical elements are also limited. The comedy moments comes from recognizing that these fake films are representative of the output of the era. Therefore, Hail, Caesar! comes across not as a harsh, take-no-prisoners evisceration of Old Hollywood but a playful recreation.