Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the acclaimed director duo the Coen Brothers, is a comedy/mystery film in the same vein as The Big Lebowski. The film serves as their love letter to classic 1950s Hollywood cinema, and revolves around the kidnapping of a famous movie star and how a Hollywood fixer attempts to solve this problem, along with the various drama that surrounds making a motion picture. So, how does it fare?
Hail, Caesar! was one of my most anticipated movies of the year, as I am an enormous, unabashed Coen Bros. fan, so my hopes for this movie were high. I came out of the film really enjoying it, and it is a really good film, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment.
The film’s first and foremost goal is to pay tribute to classic genres in Hollywood film such as the western, the musical, and old Roman epics. The film stars Josh Brolin, who plays the character Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood fixer who’s day to day job requires him to keep actors scandals out of the press, and make sure that the production of various films go off without a hitch. The main plot of the film kicks off once Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped from the set of his film ‘Hail, Caeser’, an epic film which unashamedly pays tribute to Ben Hur.
While this is the beginning of the plot, it is only a small portion of the film. While the trailers somewhat misleadingly showed the film as a mystery surrounding the kidnapping and Mannix attempting to solve it, the film acts as more of a “day in the life: of a movie studio exec. The film follows Mannix from set to set of various films, which provides the canvas for the Coens to paint their own versions of classic Hollywood films. These scenes in the film are those in which the Coens excel, and are my favorite parts of the film.
While I did enjoy this aspect of the movie, some characters from these portions of the film amount to little in terms of impact on the overall narrative, namely Scarlett Johansson’s and Jonah Hill’s characters. Its these wasted characters and time spent with them that contribute to the bare bones if not weak story, similar to the structure of The Big Lebowski, but not as successful at it. However, I felt this way about The Big Lebowski initially, so maybe my feelings will be mitigated on repeat viewings.
The musical number with Channing Tatum stands out particular as one of my favorite scenes in the whole film, paying homage while at the same time playfully mocking similar scenes from classic films as they exaggerate the homoerotic under tones of a group of sailors performing the musical number “No Dames”.
The aforementioned homoerotic themes are just one of many of the stigmas from classic (and one could say modern) Hollywood films that the Coen’s poke fun such as issues of religion, sexism, and celebrity worship. These themes are all worked into the plot at various moments often shown in a comedic light. These issues work well as the Coen’s commentary on Hollywood while at the same time leading to several scenes of hilarity. The Red Scare is also a major theme in the film and has a huge impact on the plot, and is one of the funniest parts of the film, though I won’t spoil anything surrounding it.
The Coen’s pay direct tribute to the Hollywood epic not only with their portrayal of their fictional version of Ben Hur, but also with the way the film is shot. The way they use the camera in many of the scenes in the film feel like they were lifted directly from the films they are paying tribute to, and works extremely well. Seeing a 1950s large movie studio lot shot in the same way as Ben Hur is very effective and is enjoyable to see on screen.
Josh Brolin is the standout actor in this film, playing a conflicted Hollywood fixer who cannot decide if he is in the right business or not. The majority of the film is from his perspective and seeing classic Hollywood from this lens and shows how he deals with various movie stars in the film that range from hilarious to somewhat shocking. Another standout from the cast is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a famous western actor who is out of his element when he is cast in a drama film. He is one of the funniest characters in the film and Ehrenreich plays Doyle with such sincerity and earnestness that just makes the characters all the more enjoyable.
Overall, I really enjoyed Hail, Caesar!. When taken for what it is, a comedy and a tribute to classic Hollywood with a colorful cast of Hollywood eccentrics, the film delivers consistently and is a joy to watch. Where it fails is actual plotting and in delivering on the mystery that the advertising suggested there would be. It’s not the Coen’s best film, but it certainly isn’t their worst either, which in my opinion is still enormously high praise.
Would that it were so simple.