As the list of dark comedies about film and/or stage production continues to grow, and as their directors attempt to find more artificially unique ways to present the many struggles of achieving success in the theater industry, Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to create that coveted originality organically—without any artificial sweeteners like making the film look like it was shot in one single take. Their formula was simple: just place their newest work, Hail, Caesar!, within the same surreal universe they’ve created and perfected over the last four decades.
So, yes, Hail, Caesar! does indeed take place in the same wonky cinematic universe as, say, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and even the Coens’ most recent movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, but it feels most like 2008’s Burn After Reading if only because it’s an ensemble comedy starring a plethora of great actors and actresses that, if I were to list all of their names in this review, Google would probably report Substream Magazine for keyword stuffing. But—more importantly—no, the Coens’ latest hasn’t quite won my heart like most of their work has, although it’s quite good.
Set in Hollywood in the early 1950s, Hail, Caesar! essentially follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “studio fixer” who solves problems of all sorts for Capitol Pictures in Hollywood. Eddie’s newest problem? Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the biggest star on the silver screen, has been abducted from the set of the studio’s newest film, Hail, Caesar!: The Tale Of Christ, and he needs to be found so that their film can be finished and so that the local gossip columnists, twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (double Tilda Swinton), don’t catch wind of the bizarre incident.
A day in the life of Eddie Mannix involves visiting sets of all different kinds: musicals, Westerns, dramas, religious epics, etc. When a fussy director named Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes) doesn’t like the quality of his cowboy star Hobie Doyle’s (Alden Ehrenreich) acting, Eddie is called. When actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) needs help giving up her child for adoption, Eddie is called. Thus, Eddie’s in charge of gathering up the ransom for Baird Whitlock and setting up the exchange with the kidnappers.
Brolin’s character begins the film in a confessional booth, listing away his petty sins as a priest whose ear he’s nearly worn off forgives him and instructs him to recite Hail Marys in the middle of the night. Eddie is stern and strong in the eyes of those around him—he has to be as the Sheriff of Capitol Pictures—but he truly feels guilty when he treats people the wrong way and lies. You look at him the way you look at Llewyn Davis: You pity him, and you second-guess yourself in potentially coveting that type of career choice.
Eddie Mannix is certainly a complicated guy, and if it weren’t for the heart and soul-filled performance from Josh Brolin here, Hail, Caesar! would feel more like a theme park ride or an exhibit designed for Disney’s MGM Studios or a tour bus riding through the Hollywood Hills identifying stars’ homes. Brolin’s performance, in fact, gives the plot sheer necessity, as without that very performance the storyline—and ultimately the climax—would feel inconsequential. If Eddie doesn’t feel human, Hail, Caesar! indeed would play like nothing more than a highlight reel that ends once the behind-the-scenes looks at ‘50s Hollywood are all shown.
Comparisons can easily be drawn between characters within the film and actors/actresses that actually existed (DeeAnna Moran = Esther Williams; Laurence Laurentz = any foreign director working in Hollywood in the ’50s; Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing Burt Gurney = Gene Kelly), which aids in making Hail, Caesar! infinitely more watchable. All the films shooting within the film were absolute joys to experience, and every set was magnificently staged and choreographed brilliantly, including more long takes than one can count. Although this high quality has come to be expected from the Coens, it should still be cherished. Furthermore, it’s nice to see Roger Deakins’ eye-popping cinematography serve a purpose.
Like in Inside Llewyn Davis and even Raising Arizona, our directors make you feel sorry for the main character despite their own faults. They point out that Hollywood studios have been and always will be capitalistic corporations, structured that way since people realized there was money to be made from it. They comment on the politics of the era, too (it’s no coincidence what character reincarnation ends up being a Communist)—mostly in a satirical manner, as you would expect. Yet, I’m still not sure the movie itself is about any of these things.
After digesting Hail, Caesar!, it’s come to feel as if it’s nothing more than the Coens recreating ‘50s Hollywood through their own brotherly unique vision, showcasing humanity in as simplistic of a manner as they did in Fargo, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Hail, Caesar! is certainly being advertised through its star power, but the real star here is the Coens’ universe on full display, showing us an era from a point of view that has given us some of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last four decades.