0496 | Hail, Caesar!

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.


Scarlett Johansson and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

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.
Carter Burwell.
Running Time:
106 minutes.

Comments 22

  1. ckckred March 14, 2016

    Hey, I liked The Ladykillers! 😉

    Nice review Stu. I wouldn’t say Hail, Caesar! is a top tier Coen brothers comedy too, but I do think it’s a sharp and effective comedy, a bit like if Barton Fink met O Brother, Where Art Thou. I’ve also always enjoyed Clooney’s outings with the Coens, he’s never afraid to parody his persona.

    • Stu March 14, 2016

      Haha I’m sorry, man, I was so bored during that film! I’ve enjoyed Clooney’s performances with the Coens to date, too…particularly Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother. He’s a good fit.

      • ckckred March 14, 2016

        I’m probably the only person who liked The Ladykillers. I only saw it once on an airplane but I remember laughing so much during the showing.

        Yeah, Clooney works really well with the Coens. I enjoyed his role in Burn After Reading as well, I just really like seeing Clooney in a comedic role.

  2. Three Rows Back March 14, 2016

    Great work – like there’s anything than great work on this site! Well, I’ve loved most of the Coens back catalogue so there’s no reason why I wouldn’t love this. Shame it’s not done better box ofice wise though.

    • Stu March 16, 2016

      Cheers – thanks for taking the time to read! If you love the Coens you’ll probably like this one. Unfortunately their comedies get judged against some of their other comedies like Lebowski, which I’ve done here, but when you compare Hail, Caesar! to most of the other comedies released this month (or this year to date) it’s streets ahead.

  3. Rebecca March 15, 2016

    I’m a bit on the fence about this film, I thought the narrative wasn’t streamlined enough. I loved the grandeur, the acting but not the characters, I thought they were all underdeveloped.

    • Stu March 16, 2016

      Hi Rebecca – do you mean there was too much going on diverting attention away from the central issue of Mannix finding Whitlock? I could understand why that would be a problem for a lot of people, although personally I liked the way it moved from one production to another and all these different characters going about and making their own films. The main character here is the studio, I guess!

  4. Jordan Dodd March 21, 2016

    You changed your domain name mate? I tried to link one of your posts in my most recent post but your sight had disappeared. And now suddenly your entry to my PSH blogathon came up in my notifications. Weird!

    “which dictates the zippy pace as well as being an effective way of showing just how busy Mannix’s days are.”

    This is exactly how I saw it. I didn’t see them as plots worth pursuing, but like you say, a way to illustrate how goddamn busy Mannix is. He must check his watch ten times during the movie, which again illustrates how busy he is.

    And yes, that conversation about god and christ was absolute gold. I was giggling like an idiot.

    Not a fan of Burn After Reading? Its actually one of my favourites of theirs.

    Good to see you haven’t disappeared from the blogosphere! 🙂

    • Stu March 21, 2016

      Cheers Jordan – sorry about the confusion! I will find the time to swing by later today but thanks for linking here (unless of course you’re telling people to avoid this site like the plague). I changed the name last week – I’d always hated Popcorn Nights but changing it seemed like too much hassle. Finally had enough of it though!
      In fairness Burn After Reading is one of the few Coen films I’ve seen where I’ve often thought I ought to watch it again to see if my opinion has changed. I don’t think I was in the right mood when I saw it and it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time, but the fact that it’s them and the fact that I like nearly everything they’ve done means I’ll probably give it another shot one day.
      Anyway…Hail, Caesar!…glad you liked it! I think some people haven’t quite connected with the sense of humour over here. I was one of only two or three people in my local cinema that laughed!

      • Jordan Dodd March 21, 2016

        I was the only one laughing it felt, I couldn’t believe how mute everyone else was. I hope I didn’t ruin it for them! Like you said though it was sad to see that there were barely 10-15 people there. It was a 10:30am slot though, on a weekday, so I guess it makes sense. That’s cool that you saw the subplots like I did, a lot of people’s biggest problem with this movie is the lack of a plot, lack of actors getting screen-time. But when it is that funny (how good was Fiennes!!) and looks this good, with nods to the era everywhere, I’m not complaining! IMO the only bad movie they have ever made is The Ladykillers, which was just unneeded, the UK one is so goddamn funny!

        And yeah, give Burn After.. another chance mate, its got some wicked humour, Clooney and Pitt actually -acting- and JK Simmons as the head of the CIA who doesn’t know what the fuck is happening. And of course it has Malkovich 😀

        sorry for the essay of a reply mate!

        • Stu March 22, 2016

          OK I will do – I have it on a hard drive somewhere, I’ll watch it again sometime! I think Fiennes is pretty funny here…he has taken on a lot of comic roles of late and he’s been pretty good in all of them. I agree about the Ladykillers – one of those completely pointless remakes you get from time to time. Cheers Jordan!

        • Stu March 23, 2016

          He’s very funny in that. He’s a good guy, I think – great serious actor but not up his own backside, by the looks of things.

  5. Todd Benefiel June 7, 2016

    Hey Stu! Better late than never, right? I’ll never be able to get caught up on the nearly-500 review notices I have in my e-mail box right now, but I saved this one to reply to because it was the last review ever posted on Popcorn Nights (RIP 2013-2016). AND…it was a movie you’d reviewed that I’d actually seen!

    Being a fan of the Coens, I expected a lot more from this one, especially based on what the preview trailer hinted to; I was surprised that the Clooney storyline was so minimal, overshadowed by other character stories and the musical numbers. I did like the look and feel of 1950s movie-making, though, and I always have fun watching Clooney in a Coen film. Like you, I’d file this somewhere between their greats and their duds.

    And one more thing: similar to your viewing of this film, my brother and I (and one other mystery person) were the only ones laughing in a crowded screening of ‘Raising Arizona’ back in 1987.

    • Stu June 7, 2016

      Hey Todd, I hope all’s good with you. I liked the same things as you – the re-staging of stuff like On The Town worked really well, but I guess it’s one of those films that doesn’t settle down…even Josh Brolin’s main character is left alone at times, if memory serves. This is one of those films that I’ve thought about on and off since watching it, so I’d quite like to see it again, and I think more and more highly of it as the months go by. I’m impressed you saw Raising Arizona way back then…I think it did OK in cinemas but I’ve always thought the Coens found their audience when their films made it to video and TV. Anyway, more importantly…how’s the Monolith tidying going?

      • Todd Benefiel June 8, 2016

        I’ll give this another look, too, and see what I think. It had so much potential, I thought…maybe this time around I’ll be more forgiving. And things started out slow with the Monolith updating, but soon I began to miss writing reviews and such, so now I’m working on it just about every night, and hopefully I’ll be ready (mostly) for a return on July 1st, when I take part in a blogathon. I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things…including keeping up with favorite movie blog sites.

        • Stu June 8, 2016

          Excellent – good to recharge the batteries every now and again. I’ll keep my eyes peeled at the start of July, scheeeee?

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