The Coen Brothers mainly make two distinctive types of films. On the one hand, many of their films fall into the category of quirky comedies, such as Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?. On the other hand, they’ve also dabbled in more serious, yet still unique, dramas like No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Hail, Caesar!, a farcical romp through a 1950s Hollywood studio, falls squarely into the first category, and as such is the funniest film the Coen Brothers have made in years, particularly for classic film fans. It’s a return to form for the writing/directing pair, combining an all-star cast with a distinct storytelling style and comedy that demands a fair amount from viewers in able to fully appreciate it. The end result is a film that feels different from anything we’ve seen onscreen lately and is bound to please any fans of the Coens or of the golden age of Hollywood.
Hail, Caesar! revolves around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer for Capitol pictures in charge of ensuring not only that film production goes smoothly but that the lives and antics of the studio’s contract stars don’t generate the wrong kind of press. Mannix is excellent at his job, hard when needed but diplomatic when things call for a gentler hand, and has attracted the attention of Lockheed who have made him a juicy offer to leave Hollywood and do something real. While he ponders this opportunity, he has to deal with the fact that his studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), was kidnapped from the set of his Ben-Hur-style epic and the kidnappers are demanding $100,000. Mannix has to arrange the ransom while keeping the kidnapping out of the papers and sorting out a myriad of issues throughout the studio.
But while Whitlock’s kidnapping serves as the overarching story in Hail, Caesar!, the plot is really an excuse for a clever series of loosely-connected vignettes filled with familiar faces parodying both the studio system of the 1950s and the variety of films they produced, all of which have problems Mannix must smooth over. There’s Scarlett Johansson starring as a mermaid in a Busby Berkeley-style aquatic musical number, who is having trouble squeezing into her costume due to her secret pregnancy, which will be a scandal unless Mannix can find her a husband in order to maintain her wholesome image. On another stage, the studio brass has sent their singing cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) to fill the vacant lead role in a period drama, but the film’s refined director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) can barely contain his fury at the cowboy’s inability to deliver a simple line or understand direction like “Squint against the grandeur!” In between being hounded by a set of twin reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) who are rivals competing for a juicy story, Mannix also has to meet with a group of religious leaders to ensure that Whitlock’s Biblical epic is portraying Jesus in a controversy-free way. And to top it all off there’s a song-and-dance number from Channing Tatum in the style of Gene Kelly or James Cagney about sailors have “No Dames” out at sea, which is hilarious in how obviously gay the number is yet how oblivious the studio seems to be.
The wide variety of scenes and scenarios in Hail, Caesar! give the film the feeling of a sketch comedy show based around 50s Hollywood rather than a genuine movie, yet while each separate story is fun on its own they all are a part of the larger picture, and each allows Mannix to show a different aspect of his talent at managing the often outlandish personalities of his stars and artists. This latest Coen Brothers work is filled with laughs, and is perhaps their straight-up funniest film yet, but more appealing than the comedy is the film’s obvious love of classic cinema. I got as much enjoyment out of spotting references and appreciating the film’s attention to detail as I did from the jokes and gags. Part of the movie’s charm is the dedication of its massive cast. Brolin mostly plays the straight man to the more colorful personalities around him, though with a surprising amount of depth to the character, and that allows the rest of the actors to go over-the-top in their scenes. Whether it’s Clooney debating the merits of communism with his kidnappers, Fiennes hammering home the correct pronunciation of a particular line of dialogue and growing more furious as his actor just can’t get it, Tatum’s devotion to turning in a musical number that works both on its own and perfectly as a parody, every actor brings their A-game. And I haven’t even gotten to the myriad of smaller roles filled both with big names and familiar faces like Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Clancy Brown, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, Robert Picardo, and Michael Gambon as the film’s narrator.
Hail, Caesar! is definitely not for everyone, however. It has that very specific Coen Brothers’ style, and while I may be a fan I can understand why others find it uninteresting or off-putting, and if you’ve generally disliked their previous comedies and have no interest in classic cinema you’re probably better off skipping it altogether. Nor is it the Coen Brothers’ best film (for me that’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?); it’s somewhat inconsequential and lacking in heart compared to some of their other works. But Hail, Caesar! is constantly funny and a lot of fun, and its vignette style means it never lingers to long on one subplot or character. If anything, Joel and Ethan Coen get to show off their comedic range as writers and directors, jumping from one style of parody to another while maintaining a consistent vision across the different storylines. It’s clear a lot of work went into crafting the film, to strike just the right tone of homage and parody, and it’s obvious that the Coens have watched a lot of classic movies, but don’t worship at the altar of classic Hollywood the way some in the industry seem to.
Perhaps the most clever aspect of Hail, Caesar! is the fact that Eddie Mannix was a real person, a genuine Hollywood fixer in the 50s, and as outrageous as many moments and characters are in the film it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the real-life Mannix having to sort out similar problems in his dealings with troubled movie stars, clueless executives, ruthless members of the press, and self-obsessed directors. The 50s were such an interesting time in Hollywood, what with the decline of the studio system and contract stars, the looming threat of the Cold War, the rise of television, and the public’s never-ending obsession with stars and their private lives. Hail, Caesar! taps into all of those issues, happy to debate the role of religion in film, the future of film, and whether movies are art or commerce, but it never truly comes down on one side in any debate. It’s more than happy to simply ask these questions and laugh at some of the arguments that are made, even if there might be nuggets of truth scattered among the laughs. And while I loved the film, there’s no denying it’s perhaps the Coen Brothers’ least accessible film. Their style has always been a bit divisive, but on top of that Hail, Caesar! seems designed specifically for the sort of people who know from memory what channel Turner Classic Movies is on in their house (256 on DirecTV, if you’re curious). That they could make a film that is so mocking of classic cinema but which never feels mean, unfair, or offensive to those who love the old stuff is quite the achievement. Hail, Caesar! won’t win over the masses, and if you go see it with a group of friends a good number of them may be ready to walk out halfway through, but for those who fit in just the right niche it feels like a hidden gem. I, for one, can’t wait to see it again, as I’m sure there are jokes and nods to some of my favorites that I must have missed.