As widely-reported, Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ love letter to classic Hollywood and the big studio pictures of the 1950s, and a comic film that you feel they just had to make at some stage. Much of the action takes place in the giant Los Angeles lot of Capitol Pictures, the same fictional studio the Coens created for the purposes of Barton Fink, while the crux of the plot is concerned with little more than a day in the life of Josh Brolin’s fixer and producer Eddie Mannix (a softer version of the real Mannix) as he quashes negative stories about his stars and keeps the cogs of several productions running smoothly. Despite the scope offered by the subject matter the story is actually quite threadbare, largely revolving around the kidnap of George Clooney’s goofy actor Baird Whitlock by a shadowy group of Communist Party-supporting screenwriters, but the charm of Hail, Caesar! lies less in the intricacies of plotting and more in its unabashed celebration of Old Hollywood, and movies as wonder-inspiring products more generally. The standout moments arrive when the Coens and their cast and crew re-stage typical, grand productions of the era, highlighting the inherent pleasures of the shore leave sailor musical, the drawing room drama, the Roman religious epic (hence the title) and more.
With so many famous faces in the cast and a relatively-short running time, Hail, Caesar! employs many of its characters sparingly, with only Mannix, Whitlock, Alden Ehrenreich’s Gene Autry / Roy Rogers-style cowboy actor Hobie Doyle and Heather Goldenhersh’s secretary Natalie getting more than a few minutes of screen time. Several famous faces are primarily used as links to the different types of productions taking place on the lot, so Scarlett Johansson’s sassy actress DeeAnna Moran is associated with an Esther Williams-style musical swimming movie (as well as presenting Mannix with another problem to fix), Channing Tatum’s tap dancer Burt Gurney is the star of an On The Town-style song and dance extravaganza, and so on. Normally I’m a little skeptical when this many well-known actors appear for brief cameos, even allowing for the obvious draw of having a Coens film on the CV, but I think it enables the directors to quickly skip from one minor character to another, which dictates the zippy pace as well as being an effective way of showing just how busy Mannix’s days are. Inevitably there are some you want to see more of: Frances McDormand lights up the screen as an editor, for example, but appears for a minute at most.
As Coen comedies go, Hail, Caesar! is about par for the course: it falls short of the mark set by The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona but it’s certainly superior to the likes of Burn After Reading or the largely pointless remake of The Ladykillers. I can’t deny that I prefer their darker dramas, on the whole, but the jokes here work while the film’s playing, even if I can only recall a few three days later, as I write this review. I loved the idea of a cabal of blacklisted screenwriters rendezvousing with a Soviet submarine near their Malibu hideout, which effortlessly sends up the McCarthyist paranoia of the era, while Mannix’s discussion with four religious leaders about depictions of God and Christ in the film-within-a-film is gold. The song-and-dance numbers ought to put a smile on the most miserable of faces, too, particularly Tatum’s big moment, an homage to Gene Kelly.
Yet there’s more to Hail, Caesar! than warm-hearted nostalgia: there are as many broad swipes at religion and capitalism as there are jokey barbs at the expense of the movie business and its practices, and the character of Mannix is more than a mere go-between, exerting a little menace here and there to stop the wheels from falling off; his more dubious qualities have even alerted the defence contractor Lockheed Martin, who attempt to woo him away from Capitol. However the truth is your enjoyment will likely derive more from the charming way in which the Coens celebrate the business of show, even though they also draw back the curtain on studio productions and reveal a range of problems occurring across the lot. The way they highlight the farcical nature of the business is amusing, but any doubts you may have as to how the Coens feel about Hollywood are quashed by the glimpses of one film – the Hobie Doyle-starring Lazy Ol’ Moon – premiering to a rapturous response. For me that turned out to be one of the film’s most bittersweet scenes: on screen there was a sea of laughing audience members as Doyle sang and a stooge jumped in a watery trough, but I was sat in a crowd of about fifteen people, with spare seats all around. It was a Friday night, and Hail, Caesar! had only been on general release for a week, while I could count the number of people who laughed on one hand. What a shame.
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Heather Goldenhersh.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editing: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Music: Carter Burwell.
Running Time: 106 minutes.