A film review by Craig J. Koban February 14, 2016


2016, PG-13, 100 mins.


Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran  /  Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney  /  Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix  /  Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Lorenz  /  George Clooney as Baird Whitlock  /  Tilda Swinton as Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker  /  Jonah Hill as Joseph Silverman  /  Frances McDormand as C. C. Calhoun  /  Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle  /  Alison Pill as Mrs. Mannix

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers’ HAIL, CAESAR! is not the first time that the sibling directorial team has made a film that has satirized and/or commented on the industry that they work in, nor is it the only film on their resumes to be bathed in 1950’s nostalgia.  

After the wonderful, but decidedly somber INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HAIL, CAESAR! represents a rousing and pleasant return to comedic filmmaking waters for the Coens, and the film certainly contains the directors’ trademark quirkiness and madcap goofiness through and through.  Better yet, HAIL, CAESAR! is a vivacious love letter to a bygone era in lavish Hollywood filmmaking, during which time the industry was in a relative Golden Age of crafting mass marketed escapist fare (to combat the then flourishing TV medium) ranging from lightweight westerns, bubbly musicals, and lavishly scaled sword and sandal epics.  HAIL, CAESAR! is a movie about movies that loves movies and reflects its makers’ passion for movies. 

Where the film lacks in an overall cohesive plot it more than makes up for it in terms of showcasing the Coens letting their fertile imaginations run wild in recreating the behind-the-scenes comings-and-goings of a 1950’s movie studio.  Rather wisely, the Coens neither outright mock the Hollywood studio system of yesteryear (which, to be fair, produced both epically staged films alongside schlocky and forgettable fare), nor do they unquestionably place the period on an upper echelon of film-fan hero worship.  In a way, HAIL, CAESAR! both respects and ridicules post-war Old Hollywood as a time when the industry combined bankable stars with wide appeal and married them with specific genres that harnessed (and sometimes failed to harness) their respective abilities, all in an effort to turn a fat profit.  Movies certainly aren’t made the way they were 60 years ago, but the film easily argues that, in many ways, the film industry hasn’t really changed all that much in terms of its business model and motives. 



HAIL, CAESAR! reunites the Coens with their NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN star Josh Brolin, exceedingly well cast here as Eddie Mannix, the head of the fictitious Capital Pictures, a studio that prides itself on making quality, “prestige pictures.”  Ostensibly chronicling a day in his arduous work life, the film shows Eddie’s stressful grind of not only keeping his multiple productions afloat and on schedule, but also him combating gossip columnists and ensuring that his biggest stars’ extracurricular activities don’t make headlines.  The biggest film on his docket is, yes, HAIL, CAESAR!, a film within the film that bares a remarkable resemblance in both subtle and obvious ways to BEN HUR.  The star of this massive production is the wonderfully named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a mega star with a handsome mug that just happens to be dumber than a bag of hammers.  HAIL, CAESAR! is the largest film in production for Capital Pictures, leaving Eddie remarkably stressed when Baird gets kidnapped by Communists, who demand a $100,000 to release him. 

Even more pressures begin to mount on Eddie’s already heavily burdened shoulders.  He’s being aggressively courted by Lockheed for a lucrative job, which leaves him feeling doubtful about his continued work in the film industry.  Then words comes that one of his biggest female stars under contract DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has become pregnant out of wedlock, meaning that her America’s Sweetheart status in the pubic eye is in jeopardy.  Matters get worse when esteemed director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) is literally going crazy after being forced to work with a ridiculous unqualified western matinee idol in Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his latest character-driven costume drama.  Rounding off Eddie’s external pressures are a pair of twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) that are a constant thorn in his side. 

HAIL, CAESAR!, on purely superficial levels, is a wondrous travelogue film as it effortlessly transports us to a different time and place in Hollywood’s history, evoking the Coens' established and considerable skills as craftsman in conjuring up the past.  Not only is the film a bravura recreation of the Old Hollywood studio system at work and in full force, but it also displays great joyous enthusiasm in showcasing the many films within the film.  The Coens clearly have a considerable amount of unbridled appreciation for the multiple genres on display here, and HAIL, CAESAR! is at its most euphoric when it allows the brothers to flirt and dabble with 50’s era productions.  Aside from their meticulously accurate recreation of Biblical epics, the Coens also bestow upon us terrific sequences from a Busby Berkeley-like clone and, even better, a toe-tapping musical (featuring Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-inspired performer) that’s a sublime highlight in the film.  The Coens also revel in portraying Hollywood’s predilection towards hokey, B-grade westerns that act as a qualitative counterpoint to the other films mentioned. 

One of the most delectably agreeable traits of most Coen Brothers comedies is their unique ability at taking established actors and allowing them opportunities to make fools of themselves for two hours, and endearingly so.  Regular Coen Brothers’ alumni George Clooney always has a field day in their films portraying well meaning, but hopelessly clueless idiots that really have no idea how deep there are getting into trouble.  Very few actors of Clooney’s stature can play dumb so well.  I also admired Ralph Fiennes’ few scenes (arguably too few), especially one uproarious sequence as he slowly descends into teeth clenched anger as he desperately tries to get a passably good performance out of Hobie Doyle (like Clooney, Ehrenreich is stellar at playing an uncoordinated simpleton).  Brolin has the meatiest role of the bunch, though, and his fairly earnest and mostly understated performance acts as a nice counterweight to the screwball antics of the fellow actors around him.  HAIL, CAESAR! becomes quietly enthralling in terms of simply witnessing this man trying to maintain his sanity considering all of the insanity that’s permeating his day. 

HAIL, CAESAR! is ultimately more about the Coens being given carte blanche to blissfully play around in a wonderful period specific sandbox than it is perhaps about telling a fully engrossing narrative with all of its multiple pieces gelling together cohesively.  There’s no denying that some of the various subplots here – like Johansson’s Moran and her trying to keep her pregnancy a tightly guarded secret – are skimpily written, not to mention that I would have really liked to see more, as mentioned, involving Fiennes’ increasingly agitated director going more bonkers by the minute in trying to coach an uncoachable actor.  Scenes involving Whitlock and his captors – during which time they pontificate on God, faith, and the moral corruption of Hollywood movies – display a willingness on the Coens’ part to dig thematically deeper into their story, but those scenes sort of end just as they become strangely compelling.  All in all, there’s a lot going on in HAIL, CAESAR…maybe too much for its own good. 

Yet, I came out of the film greatly approving of the tricky balancing act that it was attempting.  Too much on the nose lampooning of the classic Hollywood studio milieu might have been aggressively unfunny, whereas too much displayed affection for it would have greatly watered down the film’s sarcastic edge.  The Coens manage to find that incredibly ethereal middle ground approach here, and even though HAIL, CAESAR is not in the same league as their other upper echelon comedies, I was nevertheless fully enamored with its impeccable cast, its rich period detail, and the manner that it cunningly sends up the film industry while paying respectful homage to it, which ultimately makes it undeniably charming.  

Oh, and a little bit of Coen Brothers zaniness thrown in for good measure here and there goes an awfully long way too. 

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