by Jordan Canahai
Hail, Joel and Ethan Coen! Over a directorial career that spans 30-plus years and 17 features, the filmmaking siblings and iconoclasts have established a sturdy reputation as being among our greatest and most unique American filmmakers. Although they’ve achieved critical and commercial success working across a wide variety of genres, there’s no denying they’ve always had a real gift for comedy. Sure, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers weren’t that great, but Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are both classics. Even their most acclaimed “serious” films such as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Inside Llewyn Davis are elevated greatly through their flashes of trademark humor. Their latest feature—Hail, Caesar!—is a madcap comedy that finds the Coens both mercilessly satirizing and paying affectionate tribute to the Hollywood film industry of the 1950s.
The film centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive and “fixer” for the fictional Capitol Pictures studio. His daily duties involve making sure the studio’s productions run smoothly, keeping the contract players in line while dealing with the gossip columnists (and law enforcement, if necessary) to uphold his colleagues’ public image. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a dim-witted movie star cast as the lead actor in Capital Picture’s biggest production, Hail, Caesar!—a biblical epic set in Roman times—is drugged on-set and kidnapped for ransom by a mysterious group of Communist screenwriters who dub themselves “The Future,” Mannix must arrange for his release on behalf of the studio while keeping the deal out of public knowledge. For their parts, both the principal performers mesh really well with the Coen’s style of screwball humor. Brolin is appropriately over-the-top as the domineering fixer while bringing nuance to a performance that could easily have been mere caricature, while Clooney knowingly and hilariously pokes fun at his public image through his portrayal of a self-important movie star.
Although seemingly a whodunit, the mystery at the center of Hail, Caesar! is very simple and not at all the film’s focus. As in The Big Lebowski, the plot here is merely a device to allow the Coen’s first-rate cast to cut-loose playing various oddballs, while leaving writer/director duo to indulge their various cinematic and literary influences. Hail, Caesar! is likely to be enjoyed by fans of the classic comedies of Preston Sturges, who the Coens previously paid homage to by titling their period comedy O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? after the fictional film-within-a-film from Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Along with lampooning the Biblical sword-and-sandal epics in the Cecille B. Demille mold, Hail, Caesar! also gives the Coens opportunity to poke fun at other popular Hollywood movies of the time through the film’s various set pieces. The gosh-darn naivety of classic B-movie western heroes is skewered in the character of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a a cowboy actor who can carry a picture so long as it only requires him to use a lasso and a six-string. One of the film’s funniest scenes involves him being cast against type as the male lead in a romantic melodrama helmed by pretentious studio director-for-hire Laurence Laurentz (a pitch-perfect Ralph Fiennes) with cringe-inducing results. There’s also a nice Busby Berkeley-inspired sequence involving a brash Scarlett Johansson in a small role as one of the studio’s top actresses, and Channing Tatum continues to prove a remarkable talent for how he channels Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly during an extended song-and-dance number at the film’s mid-point.
Hail, Caesar! is a visual delight thanks to the wonderful cinematography from the great Roger Deakins and how he masterfully mimics the period look of the respective films parodied, while Carter Burwell provides yet another great score to rank alongside his recent work in Carol and Anomalisa. Tonally, Hail, Caesar! is among the Coens’ lighter pictures. Despite involving a kidnapping scheme one never senses the bumbling Whitlock is ever in much danger (the party behind his abduction never once invokes any desire to inflict physical harm, unlike the kidnapping nihilists who threaten castration multiple times throughout The Big Lebowski), and the film’s breezy 100-minute runtime ensures the Coen’s very specific humor doesn’t grow tiresome before the credits role. There’s a hilarious theological debate over the nature of Christ and how to best represent his divinity on-screen involving Mannix and representatives of various faiths which also recalls the maddeningly brilliant A Serious Man. Yet no matter how acerbic it might be at times, Hail, Caesar! ultimately finds the Coen’s love and respect for all those who struggle behind the scenes in the making of a movie to outweigh their cynicism towards the system. This doesn’t rank among the Coen’s great pictures, the movies various strands sometimes feel disjointed. This is a minor work from the Coens akin to Burn After Reading and not the near-masterpiece the similarly meta-Hollywood satire Barton Fink is—(and for my money their most perfect movie will always be their beautiful and elegiac gangster opus Miller’s Crossing.) Regardless, Hail, Caesar! left me feeling infectiously happy from start to finish, and fans of the Coen brothers should certainly not miss it.
Watch the trailer for Hail, Caesar!
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