Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a peculiar ode to old Hollywood in Hail, Caesar! The principal protagonist in the film is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a producer and “fixer” tasked with making sure that everything runs smoothly at Capitol Pictures. He hops from fire to fire, and along the way gives us a haphazard overview of the Hollywood studio system by visiting the sets of different pictures. While different threads of his life entwine together into a coherent story by the end of the film, particular elements fail or succeed largely on the merits of the superb supporting cast of characters. Regardless, moments of hilarity exist in this mish-mash of tone and style, and the worst sin Hail, Caesar! can be accused of is failing to synthesize its zany parts into a cohesive whole.
And there are lots of parts. Eddie’s plate is never empty, and there is always a wild character for him to handle. Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, a foul-mouthed starlet whose unexpected pregnancy will surely cause image troubles for the studio. Hence, Eddie sets to figuring out of he can arrange a quick marriage between DeeAnna and the man who she thinks is the father. Alas, though, the German director already has a wife and kids back home, so Eddie has to think a little more outside the box.
There’s also trouble with the European director Laurence Laurentz’ (Ralph Fiennes) new period piece. His lead actor has bailed at the last moment, and the replacement that the studio has brought over is not cutting it. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a fantastic Western star, but he struggles in the world of drawing chambers. The interaction between Laurentz and Doyle is one of the highlights of the film.
Other smaller films and characters add moments of mirth here and there. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is starring in a sailor musical straight out of the fifties, complete with show-stopping dance numbers when the boys are set to ship out for the next six months. Tilda Swinton plays two twins who each write their own Hollywood gossip articles, and they are constantly accosting Mannix in an effort to drag some information out of him.
But, without a doubt, the focus of the film is the sword-and-sandals epic Hail, Caesar! starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The film tells the story of Christ from the perspective of Whitlock’s character, who is a Roman Legionnaire. This is the studio’s big picture, and there is always some loose end for Mannix to tie up. Early on in the film (umm, the film we’re watching, not the film-within-the-film Mannix is producing), Mannix collects religious leaders to make certain that the depiction of the Christ in Hail, Caesar! is inoffensive to all denominations, and the proceeding theological discussion showcases that Coen Brothers wit that we have come to know and love.
Far more crucial to the filming of Hail, Caesar! is Whitlock himself, and his kidnapping by a mysterious group calling itself, “The Future” sets the plot into motion. The nature of The Future will not be revealed here, but suffice to say that it seems a little on-the-nose for the Coen Brothers given the environment of the 1950s, though they do get to have a good amount of fun with the situation as Whitlock, who is quite the dullard, begins parroting the ideology of the group.
Most of the story lines weave together near the end of the film around the events spurned on by The Future, giving the film the semblance of an over-arching theme. The film is book ended by Mannix confessing his sins, and is punctuated by meetings between Mannix and a representative of Lockheed, who wants to hire Mannix to run their business and offer him an escape from the frivolity of filmmaking. Mannix makes a decision based on his own enjoyment of the work, and takes great pride in his abilities, which is a powerful thematic statement often not seen in Hollywood.
And yet, the thematic climax of the film is set in the film-within-a-film Hail, Caesar! There, Whitlock recites a heart-wrenching and wonderful speech upon seeing Christ on the crucifix. His stirring recitation of the lines moves his fellow actors, the writer and director, and even the stage crew nearly to tears. Are the Coens saying here that, despite the ersatz nature of film, through it we can reach new heights of understanding and beauty? Perhaps, but when Whitlock flubs the final line in the soliloquy, this grandeur slips away and is replaced my the mundanities of movie making as the actors go back to discussing lines, the crew begin to reset the scene, and the director barks orders. Maybe movies do have the power to enrich our lives, but they are also a business, a bottom-line, a product. Maybe don’t take them too seriously, the Coens seem to be saying.
Hail, Caesar! will never be confused with the very best of the Coen Brothers, but it still gets a great deal right and is an impressive farcical ode to the bygone days of Hollywood. The result is somewhere in the middle of the Coen Brothers oeuvre, lacking the full film noir and zaniness of The Big Lebowski, the severity of Fargo, and even the nuanced showbiz parody of Barton Fink. While the ensemble that they have assembled is arguably the most impressive we have ever seen in one of their films, the underlying thematic material feels thin by their (admittedly high) standards. But maybe it is unfair to hold each of their new films up to the titanic offerings of yesteryear, at least three of which are unabashed masterpieces. Regardless, if you’re a fan of their work in general, I do not doubt that you will find something to enjoy in Hail, Caesar!, but this would not be the film to use as an introduction to the Brothers Coen.