Gleaming with reverential nostalgia and unabashed charm. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ finds the Coen Brothers taking a (much-deserved) break from the grisly seriousness of ‘No Country For Old Men’ and the inextinguishable, necessary melancholy of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (their irrefutable masterpiece) to enjoy a snifter of their preferred poison, reclined in leather-bound la-z-boys, reminiscing of a bygone age; the significantly romanticized, underhanded inner-mechanisms of post-WWII Hollywood, specifically the early 1950s.
Orbiting Eddie Mannix, a PR wiz and studio exec played by the stern Josh Brolin. We shadow Mannix throughout ‘Hail, Caesar!’ as he navigates precarious situations for several of his premiere movie stars. In addition to keeping the colourful nature of his clients’ private lives off the front page, Mannix continuously contorts his schedule to keep whichever Capitol Pictures production that’s next on the assembly line from rapidly imploding. The studio’s latest escapade, ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ a “prestige” picture that quite openly resembles the 1959 epic ‘Ben-Hur,’ has halted production due to the kidnapping of the film’s star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock, a supposed mash up of multiple leading men from the period, most notably shares traits with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, and Kirk Douglas, but I have an inkling we’ll never know which charismatic hunk he’s embodying for sure.
Desperately aiming to keep Whitlock’s abduction out of gossip columnists headlines, specifically the pesky Thacker sisters, Thora and Thessaly, portrayed in a brief but brilliant dual role by Tilda Swinton. Mannix recruits “singing cowboy” Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a Roy Rogers, Gene Autry mash-up, to assist in the manhunt. Doyle, having recently been miscast in Laurence Laurentz’s (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes and possibly modelled with famed director and closet homosexual George Cukor in mind) drawing-room romance, soon finds himself tailing the eccentric, effervescent Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a Gene Kelly homage no doubt. With the Thacker sisters closing in on the truth and ‘Hail, Caesar’s’ production cost mounting in Baird’s absence without result, Mannix quickly finds himself running out of wit and wiggle room.
More or less a series of vignettes that fortuitously intertwine. The many components of ‘Hail, Caesar!’ do not interlock as effortlessly as members of the Coen faithful had hoped. That said, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that Coen enthusiasts, such as myself, have any issue with slamming their fists onto the adjacent pieces to ensure, forcibly, that the tabs and blanks mesh. Although this act isn’t entirely necessary, it’s easy to see where ‘Hail, Caesar!’ tiptoes swiftly past its (minuscule) flaws, hoping not to engineer a stupendously choreographed creak upon the pristine, lacquered floors of its lavish sets in the process.
Poking fun at the film industry as an art form and a profound political catalyst, or vice versa, or the complete nonexistence of the latter, depending on where you stand. The film’s dry, sophisticated, satirical sense of humour, that the Coen brothers have lovingly brushed with a splotchy coat of pretentiousness, will reward those patient enough. Needless to say, the Coen brothers will gladly take a jab or two at Hollywood and its still well hidden underbelly, even if it is largely at their expense.
There’s no denying that the standout of ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ apart from Ehrenreich’s southern nasality of course, is the accuracy and aesthetics of each back-lot, studio, and movie set. Those heading for the exits early, (numbering roughly a handful at the screening I attended), on account of the film’s deliberate pacing, foreign content, or lack of explosions, could and should, at the very least, respect and admire tremendous effort and passion, that is, if they can recognize it. Furthermore, as a byproduct of these insanely elaborate mise-en-scene, the delightful pageantry of the film’s big song-and-dance numbers, Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” and Scarlett Johansson’s heavenly aquatic ballet, utterly transfix.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, coming off what I believe to be career-best work in Dennis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario,’ quite handily recreates the aura of one of Hollywood’s most revolutionary and obscure decades through impeccable lensing and exhaustive blocking. There’s no shortage of talent to appreciate and ponder over in the Coen brothers’ ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ and Deakins is as much to blame for the film’s overwhelming beauty as Joel and Ethan themselves.
The film’s impressive cast, to say the least, comprised with the likes of Brolin, Clooney, Fiennes, Johansson, Tatum, Swinton, and Ehrenreich, to name a few, often leave you clamouring for more screen-time. When taking into consideration that Frances McDormand’s C. C. Calhoun and Jonah Hill’s Joseph Silverman literally glance the screen for no more than a few, albeit exceedingly memorable minutes, there’s certainly an excess of talent and not enough dated humour. Nevertheless, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ frequently demolishes its intended comedic targets, thanks in large part to the invaluable experience of its acting veterans and the always piercing dialogue of Joel and Ethan.
Admittedly, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is not the Coen brothers finest outing, far from it actually. That said, when comparing, debating, and/or ranking Joel and Ethan’s body of work, one is wastefully splitting hairs. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ will fit nicely in their illustrious canon and appease those who know what they’re getting in to, “would that it were so simple…”