✦ ✦ ✦ ½ of five
Hail, Caesar! is not my Coen Brothers movie. I’m a huge fan of film and moviemaking, but I don’t have enough of a personal connection to the Hollywood of days gone by to fully appreciate the sort of love letter this film is. Hell, I only own four DVDs of films made pre-1960 (Gone with the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, and Vertigo, for the curious). However, it’s a movie made with so much overflowing love and attention to detail that I couldn’t help but find myself swept up in its many charms. It’s comparatively fluffy compared to the Coens’ prior effort, Inside Llewyn Davis (which is, for the record, my Coen Brothers movie), but that’s hardly a detraction.
The plot, in brief: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures, is caught completely flat-footed when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the Heston-lite star of the studio’s Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, disappears from his dressing room in the midst of the shoot. While it initially appears to be merely another of Whitlock’s infamous benders, complications quickly ensue: Whitlock has in fact been kidnapped by a group of Communists determined to reform the studio system. Add to this volatile situation an in-over-his-head cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich), a pregnant and unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson), and the fact that several of the studio’s movies are turning out to be utter duds, and Mannix is most definitely going to be working late.
In many ways, Hail, Caesar! is a cousin of sorts to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Both are love letters to their respective eras, both are built around increasingly convoluted plots, and both feature a myriad of truly delightful bit parts by extremely talented performers. But where Inherent Vice fuses its incredible fun with a healthy dose of unease and paranoia (which is only fitting, considering its post-Altamont setting) and ultimately depends on its plot’s remaining utter nonsense, Hail, Caesar! is content to remain a mostly uproarious romp and to come together in a (comparatively) tightly-knit conclusion.
The element the two have the most in common is their surprising sense of decency. Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually stoned “Doc” Sportello is incredibly endearing because, in a world that is recognizably steeped in the tropes of noir despite its drug-filtered era, he refuses to play the typical cynic—he is a genuinely good (if often befuddled) man who goes out of his way to make sure things end well for every wayward figure he comes in contact with. Similarly, the key figures of Caesar are not Clooney’s Whitlock but Brolin’s Mannix and Ehrenreich’s Hobie. The former, while he takes no nonsense and occasionally resorts to less than orthodox methods to accomplish his job, is at the end of the day a family man who is plagued by self-loathing due to his inability to give up smoking and spend time with his wife and kids. He also deeply believes in the nobility of his work—one of the movie’s funniest scenes is also one of its most moving, in which Mannix rails against the perceived cynicism of the film industry and insists that what he is helping to create is art worth making and worth seeing. Hobie, meanwhile, is a mildly talented kid who realizes exactly how lucky he is to be working where he is and does not take any of it for granted. He’s played as the butt of the joke early on in the film, but as its running time continues we grow to respect him for his commitment and his humility.
It is these two, then, along with the uniformly gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins and the gloriously pompous score by Carter Burwell, that form the solid core of an otherwise delightfully flighty piece of work. Famous faces flit on and off of camera and are each in their turn excellent, especially Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners forced to work with Hobie’s cowboy style and Tilda Swinton as a pair of sister-journalists competing for gossip readership. There are several occasions where the film stops dead to spend two or three minutes simply watching an entire scene play out as it’s shot on the soundstage, but rather than slowing the movie’s manic momentum these moments captivate the viewer with how good they are. Chief among them is a song-and-dance number featuring Channing Tatum and his band of sailor friends lamenting the lack of dames aboard a naval vessel—not only is it a pitch-perfect spoof, it’s a genuinely marvelous piece of staging and choreography, with the directors refusing to take half-measures simply because they’re poking affectionate fun at their subject matter. The same applies to the titular Biblical epic—it’s a grotesque likeness of Ben-Hur played for broad laughs, but is all the funnier because it nails the look and feel of the self-important sword-and-sandals pictures of the day. The film isn’t necessarily interested in saying anything thematically significant about the various pieces to which it pays homage, but the manic joy that the Coens and their collaborators take in recreating Hollywood’s golden days, warts and all, is so infectious that in the moment this doesn’t particularly matter.
It’s odd, considering the sweep of its parodic scope, that “slight” is a word I’d use to describe Hail, Caesar!, but it’s not meant as a criticism. After the deeply melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s clear that the Coens wanted to sit back and have some fun with a bunch of talented collaborators, and in this they succeed with full marks. And hey, as Birdman demonstrated, madcap movies about Hollywood are often rewarded come Oscars season. That movie has more philosophical pretensions than Hail, Caesar!, but their scattered nature ultimately works against the film rather than for it. This one isn’t trying to win Best Picture, but taken for what it is it’s an awfully amusing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.