Josh Reviews Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers have made some dark, violent films, and they have made some light, funny films, and they have made some films that seem to fall somewhere in between. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is for most of it’s run-time one of the Coen Brothers’ lighter, more farcical films, though periodically the movie reminds us that it has something more on its mind than simple silliness. Hail, Caesar! might, upon some reflection, be considered one of the Coen Brothers’ more minor works, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this film doesn’t have a lot of fun to offer.
Set in Hollywood in the 1950’s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers. Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly. The dim-witted Baird, meanwhile, finds himself somewhat taken in by his Communist kidnappers.
Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film. “Silly” is a tone that is surprisingly difficult for many filmmakers to pull off, but the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of comedic goofiness. They make it look so easy. There are a lot of wonderfully funny moments in the film as the Coens gently skewer the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos. And say whatever you want about the film as a whole, but the fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene of effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — trying to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of the greatest scenes they have ever created in any of their films. I am not exaggerating.
One of my favorite aspects of Hail, Caesar is the way the film occasionally morphs into one of the popular styles of Hollywood films from the fifties, from Biblical epic to elaborate musical to peppy dance number. Each one of these sequences is lovingly realized (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque sailor song-and-dance number is particularly terrific) and they bring the film a great spark of energy each time they shift the movie into a different tone. (Though I will say that while I loved Michael Gambon’s pompous narration at the start of the film, I could have done with a little less of it as the film progressed.)
Hail, Caesar!’s main film-within-a-film, the Roman epic in which Baird Whitlock is starring, is a movie about Jesus, and I was interested that the Coen brothers chose to end their actual movie with Whitlock’s dramatic speech from that fake movie. After spending much of the film showing how human and fallible most of the Hollywood players we meet in the film are, from the highest studio exec and star to the lowest extra, the end of the film reminds us of the importance of art and those who make it. I like the message, though it might be a hair too much back-patting on the part of the Coen Brothers for my taste. This is something I want to think about more the next time I see this film. It’s certainly something I’ve been considering ever since seeing the film. Hail, Caesar! also threatens to dive into more serious waters with the subplot about the grievances of the Communist screenwriters about the Hollywood machine. However, that story-line veers into total lunacy in the submarine sequence at the end (one of the film’s few major mis-steps in my mind. That got just a little too crazy for my tastes).
The cast the Coen Brothers have assembled is extraordinary. Though many of these actors only appear for a single scene or two, they all make the most out of the wonderful roles they have been given. I would have happily sat through a film twice the run-time of Hail, Caesar! in order to spend a little more time with these great characters.
Josh Brolin is tremendous in the lead role as Eddie Mannix. He makes Mannix into a classic noir protagonist, giving him a seriousness and world-weariness that would fit well into a much darker, more dour film. You’d think this would clash with the generally light tone of Hail, Caesar!, and yet Mr. Brolin displays a nimbleness and twinkle that allows his character to mesh perfectly with the overall silliness around him. This contrast also fits well for the character, a serious man (see what I did there?) trying his best to wrangle all the Hollywood crazies surrounding him. It was an interesting choice to make Mr. Brolin’s character the real-life person of Mannix, as opposed to an originally-created character.
Meanwhile, George Clooney is equally terrific in a polar opposite type of performance. His performance as Baird Whitlock is complete comedic nuttiness. Mr. Clooney is a riot playing this loon of a movie-star. (The Coen Brothers have rather humorously referred to Hail, Caesar! as the third of their “numbskull trilogy” with Mr. Clooney, following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.)
The rest of the cast is rich and deep. Tilda Swinton is magnificent playing twin sisters who are dueling gossip columnists. Channing Tatum is marvelous as a handsome dancing movie-star. Ralph Fiennes kills it as a director forced to wrangle the cowboy actor Mannix has assigned to his prestige drama picture. Speaking of whom, I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Alden Ehrenreich before seeing him here, but his work here as the cowboy actor with a heart of gold is a role that will make me pay close attention to this actor moving forward. (It strikes me as a small-scale version of Oscar Isaac’s star-making turn in a previous Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis). Scarlett Johansson is so funny as a fast-talking, tough-as-nails movie-star beauty. Ms. Johansson shares but one single scene with Jonah Hill as a nebbishy accountant, but it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie; the two are such gold together. Frances McDormand is likewise in but a single scene but it’s dynamite, also one of my very favorite scenes in the movie. (This movie has so many short, almost throw-away scenes that are each such classics!) Even Christopher Lambert (the original Highlander himself!) kills in the film in his short scene as the elderly director who might have gotten Scarlett Johansson’s young starlet pregnant.
But I could go on. The great Clancy Brown pops up as a Centurion in Baird Whitlock’s Roman movie. Then there is the whole room of Communists who abduct Mr. Whitlock, all of whom deserve praise. This group includes Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, and Fisher Stevens. These guys deserve a whole movie of their own!
How about every actor — including Robert Picardo (the doctor from Star Trek: Voyager) — in the room during another of the film’s phenomenal scenes, in which Mannix tries to get a room of religious leaders to sign off on his Roman film’s depiction of the story of Jesus? So great.
There is a lot to enjoy in Hail, Caesar! Myself, I tend to prefer the Coen Brothers when they are working in their more serious modes. But as you can tell from reading this review, I found so much to enjoy in this lighter, comedic film. This is a movie I can’t wait to revisit.