Hail, Caesar! (2016)
The Coen brothers have had their share of ups and downs as filmmakers, but that’s not such a bad thing when those downs are still wholly interesting and worthwhile viewing experiences. Hail, Caesar! is one of those “downs,” a good movie that is damned only by the pedigree of its creators. Compare this thing to the rest of what gets released every February by mere mortals and it looks like a work of unparalleled accomplishment.
There are a lot of Coen-y things going on in Hail, Caesar! that make the film feel right at home to a veteran fan of the brothers. First off, a large portion of the cast is made up of actors we’ve seen in Coen brothers films before: you have your George Clooney, your Josh Brolin, your Frances McDormand, and the list goes on. The movie also boasts the breezy humor and overly-dramatic score of most Coen efforts, and the thing is immaculately shot and produced. It’s an oddball movie through-and-through, one that introduces several key plot elements only to then raise additional questions and almost invalidate their existence in the first place.
Josh Brolin takes the lead as 1950s movie studio fixer and star-wrangler Eddie Mannix, a man who handles a 24-hour job with impressive professionalism. Mannix is the kind of guy who calmly smooth talks reporters, negotiates with kidnappers, fixes marriages, and tries to be a good father and husband during the three seconds a day he happens to be at home. When he slips in his attempts to quit smoking, he goes and confesses to his priest.
As much as Mannix enjoys the challenge of his job and embraces the magic of film, he’s also tired. Just as he’s offered a prominent position that would only require standard hours for an airline, things at Capitol Pictures begin to spiral out of control. Production of the big budget religious movie with the same title as this one is halted when the star (George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock) is kidnapped. America’s favorite actress (Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran) is pregnant during a time when it isn’t okay for a single woman to be found in such a state. A young calf-roper (Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle) known for westerns is failing in his attempt to convert to serious drama.
Talking more about the plot of Hail, Caesar! does something of a disservice to the movie, as the plot really isn’t the focal point so much as a framework to build something else upon. Within the confines of the Capitol Pictures studios, we see several loving send-ups of ’50s tropes play out at length. Among these are an elaborate dance number featuring Channing Tatum, the overblown epic of the movie’s title, a bizarre water show, and a snooty affair helmed by the impeccable Ralph Fiennes. Every one of these sequences is mesmerizing in its accuracy at recreating film’s alleged golden age, and while they are at times funny, they are not cynical or mean-spirited for even a moment.
I would imagine many would complain that this entry into the Coen canon simply isn’t as funny as the duo’s previous comedic efforts or as dramatically rich as their previous dramas. Those sentiments are mostly correct, but that’s okay. The humor in Hail, Caesar! is often of the understated variety, and the dramatic elements presented within are at least quite ambitious.
On the subject of those ambitious dramatic elements, I’m not actually entirely sure what to take from them. The movie hints at social satire throughout, pointing at some of the bizarre aspects of capitalism and some of the absurdity in thinking that communism could actually work with real human beings. Then there is the quest of Eddie Mannix to decide what he wants to do with his life, a quest that one could read as the man choosing work over family or the man simply deciding what his true life in passion is. There are a lot of themes to chew on buried beneath the surface, and I really enjoy thinking about them even if I’m not the guy to discern exactly what the Coens were intending. Then again, maybe that’s the point; get the audience thinking and create absorption in a different way.
So yeah, I hate to be boring, but Hail Caesar! is a mid-tier Coen brothers effort for me. That’s far from a negative thing, as the movie bursts at the seams with interesting ideas and visuals at times, but the best Coen brothers films do those things with a more captivating narrative. If you want a break from February’s romantic comedies, dumb action movies, and the beginning of this year’s superhero assault, go see this thing. As with most original work, you’ll feel a little weird once the credits roll, inspecting the last two hours of your life for greater meaning.