Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
In recent years Joel and Ethan Coen have largely put comedy to one side to focus on existential explorations in more serious films like Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man. While this has resulted in some great work, with Hail, Caesar! it is exciting to see the brothers return to the mode which brought us the likes of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou. Unfortunately, this farce set in the golden age of studio Hollywood does not end up reaching those heights.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures. His job is to solve problems, to keep their productions on track and their stars in line. His number one priority is chaperoning their latest prestige picture, a Ben-Hur like swords and sandals biblical epic called ‘Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ,’ safely through production. But things threaten to be derailed when Capitol Picture’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) vanishes, kidnapped by a group describing themselves as “The Future” and demanding $100,000 in ransom. So Mannix must negotiate the return of ‘Hail, Caesar!’s lead actor while also dealing with an Esther Williams-like water ballerina (Scarlett Johansson) who has fallen pregnant out of wedlock, a disgruntled director (Ralph Fiennes) frustrated by the studio’s demand that he cast a western star (Alden Ehrenreich) in his elegant drawing-room comedy, and gossip columnists (twin sisters both played by Tilda Swinton) sniffing around a dormant scandal which could impact some of Capitol’s most prominent talent.
The Coens have returned to one of their favourite plot devices, a kidnapping. Abductions of some description, usually botched, have featured in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. But that central narrative fades from significance, because this isn’t actually a story about a kidnapping. Rather, this is the story of a couple of days in the life of a studio fixer. As such, Hail, Caesar! has a somewhat rambling pace and confused tone, jumping between different vignettes without a clear thread as we explore all of the balls that Mannix is trying to keep in the air.
Constantly going to confession for absolution from the most trivial of sins, Eddie Mannix is a righteous man trying to negotiate an immoral industry, and Josh Brolin largely plays him straight despite the farce that surrounds him. The Coen brothers like to cast George Clooney as an idiot or buffoon (see O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading or to a lesser extent Intolerable Cruelty), and he’s at it again here as Baird Whitlock. Brolin and Clooney lead an impressively deep cast, but the characters of Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum, while amusing, are just not given time to develop which becomes problematic when some of them become quite important as the film progresses. The standout in the cast is undoubtedly Alden Ehrenreich as the singing cowboy Hobie Doyle. Doyle is sweet and charming, and Ehrenreich does an excellent job of the difficult task of playing a bad actor. The movie’s funniest passage is an exchange of dialogue between Ehrenreich and Fiennes on the set of ‘Merrily We Dance,’ as the British director tries to coach the out-of-his-element actor through a line – “Would that it were so simple” – that he is simply incapable of saying
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers’ second foray into old Hollywood after 1991’s Barton Fink, in which the titular character worked for the same fictional studio, Capitol Pictures. But this film gives them more scope to jump into life on the studio backlot and explore the politics and the mechanisms of Hollywood’s golden era. The result is a sincere, loving tribute to studio Hollywood. But more than just admiration, Hail, Caesar! presents a witty take on a particularly dark moment in Hollywood’s history, when the industry was firmly in the sights of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Coen brothers create an alternate reality in which Joe McCarthy and his HUAC witch hunters were absolutely right, as we see organized communist screenwriters explaining their plan to plant subversive material into their films. The setting also provides the opportunity to have some fun parodying old Hollywood genres. We get to see scenes and rushes from the different films being produced on the Capitol lot and these moments – most notably “No Dames,” an On the Town inspired singing sailors number featuring Channing Tatum – are among the film’s real highlights.
Hail, Caesar! is a well-crafted, precise film. You would expect nothing less from the Coen brothers. But it is missing a spark. It is a farce brimming with silliness, but lacking that madcap pace the best farces have and despite being amusing it suffers from a shortage of genuine laughs. It is a film with strong moments and fun performances which somehow doesn’t end up equaling the sum of its parts.
Review by Duncan McLean
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