Hail, Caesar! (2016) Review

Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

(Originally written for Youtube Feb 7 2016)

It’s become almost cliché to describe a movie as “a love-letter to film,” but this is most definitely true of the Coen Brother’s latest, Hail, Caesar!.

More a series of loosely connected vignettes than an A-to-B-to-C plot, Hail, Caesar! follows a day-in-the-life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, as he tries to smooth out the studio’s various problems and manage the film’s exaggerated Golden Age of Hollywood ensemble of actors, directors, and journalists. Ostensibly, the film’s A-plot involves Mannix trying to rescue the studio’s biggest star, played by George Clooney, from a group of screenwriters playfully inspired by the Hollywood Ten; but even the stakes here are kept pretty low as to not distract from the film’s various other plots including Mannix finding a way to hide Scarlett Johannsen’s out-of-wedlock Starlet’s pregnancy from the press, and helping Alden Ehrenreich’s earnest country cowboy star transition into a serious dramatic actor under Ralph Fiennes fastidious English director. Hanging above all this is Mannix deciding whether to switch jobs to a cushier position outside of Hollywood.

The Coens have never been afraid to let their films’ plot get distracted by its own characters and setting, and in this respect, Hail, Caesar! might be their most indulgent film yet. In about 100 minutes, there’s time for a fully realized tap-dancing number led by Channing Tatum, who we all have to admit at this point in his career is one of the most talented and charming men alive; another complete synchronized swimming scene; an anecdote with Mannix checking in on the cutting-room editing of one of the films; a discussion between Mannix, a priest, a pastor, a rabbi, and an imam about a film’s depiction of Christ, and a so-long-it-crosses-from-not-funny-back-into-funny gag involving Fiennes’ director guiding Ehrenriech’s cowboy through a reading of the line “Would that it were so simple.” And each of these tangents come complete with a shift in lighting, tone, pacing, and genre in order to fully commit to whatever aspect of Golden Age films it’s riffing on, to the point where the film can feel almost like a variety show. I really enjoyed the film’s commitment to painted backdrops, even outside of the films-within-films, and their use should really tell you everything you need to know about what this film is going for, aesthetically.

As for its characters, I feel that everyone who watches Hail, Caesar!, will come away with their own favorite. None of the cast in unlikable, and there can hardly said to be any real villains because it’s not a film where anyone really gets hurt. Even Gorge Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, the world’s biggest star, and a bit arrogant, is content to hang out and pal around with his kidnappers. The kidnappers themselves are mainly disgruntled nerdy screenwriters who invite their kidnapped star to join them in talks about communism and finger-sandwiches. Johannsson’s starlet is feisty but not acidic, Fiennes’ director is haughty but patient, Tilda Swinton’s twin journalists are played by Tilda Swinton, and Ehrenreich’s cowboy Hobie isn’t the brightest, but definitely the film’s warmest character, shining with earnestness and sincerity. Even Mannix, who dresses like a hardboiled detective and lives by his watch is a straight-arrow and dogged family-man who really seems to want the best for everyone at the studio.

People who’ve never heard of the Hollywood Ten or the Hayes Code will probably miss a lot of what the film is trying to say just under the surface, but even so, the Coen’s enthusiasm for this period of movie-making is infectious and should win-over everyone in the audience. Hail, Caesar! spells out its thesis in its closing minutes, but because of the wondering nature of the thing, I can’t say I really mind. It’s not just a love letter to a period of Hollywood, but to the actors, directors, producers, and everyone else who gave each film their all and made the magic happen.

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