Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.
The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.
I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.
Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.
With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.
After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.