Hail, Caesar is the Coen brothers’ first pure farcical comedy since 2008’s Burn After Reading, and it’s their best work in the style since 1998’s The Big Lebowski. You don’t need a detailed understanding of, or obsession with, Hollywood history (especially the late ‘40s and early ‘50s) to fully enjoy the movie, but it certainly helps. Hail, Caesar is a bit inside baseball, to borrow sports terminology, for those who don’t claim to be cinephiles. The references range from Busby Berkeley choreography to the singing and dancing cowboy movie star to a central plot point revolving around the Hollywood anti-communist blacklist, all staples of Hollywood at the time. Even movie extras are lampooned, described by one character as being untrustworthy. There are enough laughs, however, to ensure almost anyone can enjoy the picture. Not to mention the performances of the expertly cast ensemble, and the propulsive energy of the madcap story.
Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar details two days in the life of Capital Pictures head of production and “fixer” Eddie Mannix. Whether it’s figuring out a plan to hide the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of America’s sweetheart, or forcing the effete director of high-society melodramas to accept a Roy Rogers type as his new leading man, it’s all in a day’s work for Mannix. Josh Brolin was born for the role of studio honcho Mannix. His taciturn demeanor, yet emotive face, turn the character into a living, breathing relic from another age. The Coens use Eddie as a way to explore the hard-driven 1950s business man – imagine if Mad Men’s Don Draper had decided to go into the movie business instead of advertising – while putting their own indelible comedic spin on him. Mannix loves his job, but realizes it forces him to neglect his wife and kids. Actress Alison Pill turns up in one brief scene as Connie, Eddie’s wife, and in less than three minutes she manages to convey a lifetime of quiet desperation. If all that seems a little heavy for a fast-paced farce, don’t fret. Eddie (and the movie) is caught up in hijinks hilarious enough to fill two slapstick comedies.
It all starts with George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock. Clooney is playing Whitlock as a stand-in for every matinée idol from Hollywood’s gilded age from Kirk Douglas to Charlton Heston. He’s also having fun with his own real life persona as the successor to those leading men of a bygone era. Whitlock is brash, magnetic, and a little bit of a dim bulb. He’s close to finishing the big-budget Biblical feature Hail, Caesar, about a Roman soldier who has a transformative experience with Jesus of Nazareth. It’s clearly a stand-in for Ben-Hur, and the Coens even go so far as subtitling their fictional epic A Tale of the Christ. Two of those untrustworthy extras I mentioned earlier drug and kidnap Whitlock at the behest of the most nefarious of movie types: Hollywood screenwriters.
Left leaning critics of the Coen’s work have attacked the brothers in the past for their apparent glee in mocking liberal Hollywood stereotypes. The titular character in Barton Fink was condemned in some circles as being an ineffectual and snobbish liberal who claimed to speak for the common man, but actually knew nothing about, and even looked down on, his supposed muse. The Coens are at it again in Hail, Caesar. Joel and Ethan utterly delight in taking the piss out of the group of screenwriters who kidnap Whitlock. They are a collection of pompous, bumbling red-sympathizers who are as inept as they are committed to their cause of defeating capitalism. The big reveal of who their leader is, and his attempt to return to Mother Russia is equal parts ludicrous and hysterical.
The movie-within-a-movie portions of Hail, Caesar are also a highlight of the picture. The whole movie is a love letter to the old studio system that made up Hollywood’s “golden age”, and the directors send up that system with loving affection. Baird’s scenery chewing as he and the rest of the cast end a scene of their Biblical epic by laughing heartily for a good twenty seconds is priceless. There is an unbelievably complex homage to the work of Busby Berkeley, with Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid in an aquatic dance number that culminates in her being thrust out of a whale’s blow-hole. This sequence and an extended song-and-dance number featuring Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-type exist for no other reason than for the directors to show their deep affection for the craft of old-Hollywood musical numbers. Both are exquisitely realized.
There are also behind-the-scenes looks at the preposterous nature that is the business of making movies. Ralph Fiennes does a superb job as a European émigré director who must contend with his studio’s attempt to turn lasso wielding cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle into a sophisticated thespian. Fiennes plays esteemed director Laurence Laurentz – a name that only gets funnier when he describes the quality associated with the on-screen credit “Laurence Laurentz Presents.” The scene in which Laurentz tries to break Hobie’s southern drawl by having him repeat the line “Would that it were so simple,” had me laughing so hard I nearly cried. Relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is splendid as Hobie. He brings the perfect amount of good-natured “aw shucks” befuddlement to the role and it’s a joy to see the likes of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry seeping out of his performance.
Adding to the zaniness of the movie is Tilda Swinton as identical twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker, a take-off of the ‘50s Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Francis McDormand steals the entire movie for about five minutes as C.C. Calhoun in a scene that demonstrates why film editors would be wise to never wear a scarf to work. As purely visual storytelling, the sequence is a master class. The Coens use editing to tell a short story about an editor. It’s a position near to their hearts. When they first began making movies, the brothers didn’t want the repetitiveness of their own names in the credits to be distracting, but they couldn’t bear to let anyone else shape their films in such an important way. As a result, they cut almost all of their films (including this one) under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.
In addition to the subject of film history from 60 years ago, the Coens are also playing with their own legacy in Hail, Caesar. Frequent Coen contributor Carter Burwell delivers a score that is tonally evocative of his moody work for Fargo. The plot point of Eddie Mannix getting and delivering the ransom money for the kidnapped Whitlock is a direct callback to The Big Lebowski. Then there’s the fun they have with leftist heroes, like they did in Barton Fink. Here a group of Commie screenwriters are the target instead of a proletariat-loving, pretentious scribe. Although they are linked in time period only, Hail, Caesar also works brilliantly as a companion piece with the brothers’ 1994 rumination on big business go-getters, The Hudsucker Proxy. There is even a scene that beautifully mirrors one in Hudsucker, in which Mannix meets with various religious leaders to ensure his sand-and-sandals epic won’t offend anyone. The rat-a-tat dialog as each holy man discusses his reservations about the movie has the exact same cadence as the “including the mezzanine” scene from that earlier film.
The brothers have been crafting meticulous and wildly entertaining films for over thirty years now. Hail, Caesar is proof that they haven’t lost their touch when it comes to outrageous farce. That they have a deep appreciation for the history of their chosen art form is abundantly clear. It’s infectious, too.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Maybe I'm just suffering from lowered expectations. I saw the trailer for Hail, Caesar a few months ago, and my response was that the movie looked like a bit of a mess. I wasn't expecting to laugh as much, or to have a smile plastered to my face throughout the entire run time.
- Right after seeing it, I told a friend I thought it was The Big Lebowski good, and I've cooled just a touch since I said that. Hail doesn't have the rich mood that Lebowski has, and I don't see it becoming a cult staple 20 years down the road, but it's still a really solid piece of filmmaking.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In light of all the attention Hollywood's diversity problem has been getting in the last few years, it's pretty hard to ignore how glowingly white Hail, Caesar is. I know, it's a period piece set in the 1950s, a time when minorities found it even harder, sometimes borderline impossible, to be represented in the movie industry. Making it even more apparent is this terribly tone deaf quote from Joel Coen about how stories are written:
"It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why aren’t there this, that, or the other thing?’ It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written...You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic."
His fundamental misunderstanding is that nobody is questioning his creative process. What is being questioned is the structure of the system that allows only certain kinds of stories to be told in the first place.