Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Partly fictionalised, partly based on real-life people, Hail, Caesar! follows a day in the life of a studio executive in the golden age of 1950s Hollywood. An ode to cinema and the great genres of cinema past; it is, all at once, a melodrama, a slapstick comedy, a musical, a western, a noir, and a historical epic; manifesting themselves in the films within the film. On its surface, it’s a lighthearted, silly movie—any movie that features Channing Tatum singing and tap-dancing in a musical number can’t be one that takes itself that seriously—but once you delve deeper into it, it’s also strong thematically, touching on themes of change and faith. The genius of the Coen brothers lies in the synthesis of the comedic and dramatic elements in the story, and how well it all flows together. It’s a worthy follow-up to the Coen brothers’ last film, the underrated masterpiece that is Inside Llewyn Davis, even if it doesn’t hit all the emotional beats that made that film so poignant and lasting.
The story follows Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, loosely based off his real-life counterpart of the same name, who is the go-to man to fix any problems that Capitol Pictures (the studio that the film revolves around) and its productions and actors encounter. He’s the main cog in the complex machine of a major Hollywood studio; the person who keeps things running smoothly so that it can keep churning out hits. To riff off one of the movie’s main themes, he’s Jesus Christ, essentially. His main problem is Baird Whitlock (a delightful George Clooney as yet another Coen brother doofus), who sets the plot in motion when he gets kidnapped from the set of his new movie, a historical biblical epic also titled Hail, Caesar!, and ransomed for $100,000.
Adding more nuisances to Mannix’s plate is a weird and wonderful cast of characters. Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a young, enthusiastic but limited Western star who, after being upgraded to starring in a mainstream drama, gets on the nerves of director Laurence Laurentz (a typically hilarious Ralph Fiennes). Scarlett Johansson portrays the brash and coarse—but innocent, in the eyes of the public—DeeAnna Moran, a lead performer in an aquatic musical. She gives Mannix a headache when it is revealed that she has become pregnant with the child of a taken man. So, in addition to figuring out how to recover Whitlock so that the production of the fictional Hail, Caesar! can continue, Mannix also has to conjure up a cover story for Moran’s illicit affair and pregnancy and reassure Laurentz that the miscasting of Doyle is actually a good idea. Oh, and he also has to deal with a pair of twin Hedder Hopper-esque gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) snapping at his feet for the latest potential scandal. All in a day’s work.
Structurally, the story moves quickly between the numerous characters and thus can at times be slightly unfocused. Some bit-part characters are wasteful, being only tangentially related to the overarching story at large and seemingly only there for the celebrity cameo. But what the Cones do so well is weaving in themes that are able to ground their larger than life characters. Each character is trying to find meaning to what they do; meaning in something bigger and more encompassing than themselves. Mannix struggles with his faith in the worth of cinema. Is putting himself through so much hassle to deal with these scandals and infuriating personalities worth it? He contemplates selling out and taking a job offer from Lockheed Corporation as a high-level executive. Ultimately, he comes to an answer—“the picture has worth.”
Through the telling of Mannix’s journey and existential crisis, Hail, Caesar! is the Coens’ love letter to cinema. Roger Deakins’ nostalgic camera and Jess Gonchor’s production design perfectly recreates the feeling of old Hollywood. It takes the time to celebrate everyone in the process: actors, studio executives, directors, editors and even lawyers. Yes, being involved in filmmaking has its flaws, between negotiating with the innumerable amount of narcissists and egos and dealing with religious and political fallouts. But the light at the end of the tunnel is bigger than any one person—it has worth.