The Coen Brothers have now ascended to that special realm of film royalty for film buffs everywhere. It is a realm which grants their work a certain level of excitement, with many of us simple followers looking on at their next film as another potential masterpiece. It is a realm which now grants them a certain level of safety from critics, as the thought of the Brothers making a bad film is something that is inconceivable to many. It makes going in to Hail, Caesar! an interesting experience; I had probably subconsciously already decided I liked this film even before going in. And I do, it offers the Brothers at their campiest and produces both a hilarious satire and a touching homage to Golden Age Hollywood (I’m a sucker for anything set in the Hollywood of old). Yet while it is enjoyable, it probably should serve as a reminder that not everything the Coens touch turns to gold.
The year is 1951. Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, head of physical production at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio in Barton Fink). Not only must he deal with a number of large scale pictures at once, he must also wrangle the big personalities found amongst the cast and crew. While he contemplates a job offer at a sensible airline company, Mannix must also seek to find movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has been kidnapped from the set of his latest prestige picture, biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, by a group known only as ‘The Future.’
The plot is one that is made up of many character threads intertwining all around the focus point of Brolin’s Mannix. Hail, Caesar! sees the Coens once again work with an ensemble cast populated by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Throughout the film, we have turns from the likes of Scarlett Johansson as an actress pregnant out of wed-lock, Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque musical star, and Ralph Fiennes as a well-mannered high-class English director. Everyone on board the cast clearly had a wonderful time in less exposed roles, allowing them to forge memorable moments throughout without having to carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders.
Much of the weight of the narrative falls to Brolin, whose Mannix must deal with a number of situations at the studio, with Whitlock’s kidnapping being simply another thorn in his side. It provides Brolin with a character that allows him to display his strengths as a performer, as he is a man capable of providing charm, intimidation and confidence. Even if the character himself is a bit bland, it is a terrific performance. Clooney once again plays a Coen nitwit after turns in the likes of O Brother and Burn After Reading, as his movie star spends company in the time of ‘The Future’, who may or may not have a Communist Agenda. The highlights of a cast which also includes fleeting appearances from Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill, are Fiennes in an excellent comedic turn and bright new star Alden Ehrenreich as a fresh faced cowboy actor forced to star in pictures out of his comfort zone (the scene between Fiennes and Ehrenreich is likely to go down as the funniest of the year).
The narrative of Hail, Caesar! is by far its weakest point, as the proceedings are very loosely sketched together in-between extended moments of homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. It would be a problem, if it were not for the pitch-perfect casting and the impeccable means in which Joel and Ethan have re-created filmic styles of the post-war Hollywood period. The film at its centre, the epic Hail, Caesat! is a wonderful pastel-hued riff on Christ pictures such as Ben-Hur (but more notably Richard Burton’s The Robe), while we are also treated to extended scenes of Ehrenrich in a cowboy picture complete with drunken prospector, a Busby Berkeley-esque aquatic dance number with Johanssen as a Mermaid, and an outstanding musical number with a tap-dancing Tatum. It is in moments like this that the film truly thrives and exhibits the best work from regular Coen collaborators, particularly Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Carter Burwell’s period perfect score.
Hail, Caesar! quite possibly represents the Coen Brother’s finest technical achievement, but there is ultimately no way of shaking off the knowledge that this film is something of a release for them, the light comedic affair they make to blow off steam in-between more dramatic pictures. The truth remains, however, that the Coens blowing off steam is often better than what most directors put out when they are on their A-game. Hail, Caesar! is campy, airy, inconsequential, beautiful, and uproariously entertaining. If it won’t be remembered all too highly in the pantheon of the Coen’s, it will at the very least stand as one of their more proficient homages to the film-making styles of old.
4/5- The Coens head to Old Hollywood and bring an outstanding ensemble cast with them, delivering their campiest, most technically assured feature yet.