Film review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ written and directed by the Coen brothers
After more serious films like Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers have opted for a genuine comedy. Being a Coen brothers movie, it’s not merely a straightforward comedy, of course, but it’s a simpler film than their recent efforts.
Hail, Caesar! is a film-within-a-film comic tribute to classic Hollywood movies of the 1950s, in which film conventions and popular themes are gently mocked. The central plot involves a few days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a movie studio “fixer,” the man responsible for keeping stars happy, sober, out of trouble, and out of the tabloids.
Like one or two other Coen brothers films, Hail, Caesar! has a thread of religious philosophy running through it, from the first image that appears on screen, that of a crucifix, to the very last line in the closing credits, which reads, “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.” The major production at the studio is Hail, Caesar: A Tale of The Christ, a ‘spectacle’ historical drama along the lines of Ben Hur, which involves a Roman centurion who becomes fascinated by the newly emerging sect of Christianity. Archetypal tough guy Eddie Mannix is the unlikely Christ figure in the film, a deeply spiritual man of impeccable morals, who is ruthless with his own minor flaws, yet stern but endlessly forgiving of the flagrant vice of the actors under his supervision. He even undergoes a spiritual temptation, offered by a ‘devil’ in the guise of a representative of munitions company Lockheed Martin, who offers Mannix a position – a much easier job, but one working for the company testing the H bomb, and one which is not his true calling. Mannix’s interview with clergy of various denominations, to ensure a film will not offend religious sensibilities, allows for an odd, aimless philosophical discussion in the usual Coenesque manner.
As we follow Mannix on the sets of Capitol Pictures (the same studio that employed Barton Fink, but a decade later), we see the filming of familiar but subtly and humorously altered scenes from 50s-style westerns, musicals, costume dramas, and romantic comedies. Fans of movies from that era will enjoy the sly caricatures. Among the silliest are a ‘swimming’ movie in the manner of Esther Williams, complete with synchronized water-dancers and mermaid costumes; and a musical similar to On the Town, including the same all-sailor dance numbers, but with the vague hint of homoeroticism, which movie buffs have smiled at over the years, made ridiculously obvious. We also see a popular Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich ) being transitioned, mostly without success, into drawing room romantic comedy, the hopeless attempts to get Hobie to enunciate and overcome his cowboy accent reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain.
Other characters that relate to the movie industry add to the mix. Influential 1950s gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper are indirectly portrayed by competing, identical twin celebrity gossip mavens Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) who periodically turn up to try to unearth celebrities’ secrets. Jonah Hill appears momentarily as the trusty facilitator who arranges for an unexpectedly pregnant actress to secretly deliver, then publicly adopt her own child (an approach that was actually used by at least one popular, unmarried 50s movie star). And Frances McDormand has a brief but hilarious scene as a veteran film editor.
The plot thickens when the star of Capitol Pictures’ flagship production, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), disappears in the middle of filming. Mannix assumes he has once again gone off on a bender. In fact, Whitlock has been kidnaped and is held for ransom, by a half-imagined group of people associated with 1950s Hollywood: Communist screenwriters. Whitlock, finally rescued and returned to the studio, gives his most moving and impassioned performance of a scene extolling the teachings of Christianity – inspired, it is implied, by having listened to Communist doctrine discussed for the past two days.
Part of the entertainment comes from the ‘real life’ portions of the film often being played in the style, and using the conventions, of 1950s Hollywood movies. In fact, the entire film resembles a studio movie from that era. Parts of the story are narrated in a male voice (Michael Gambon) perfectly approximating the voice-over portions of 50s films. The kidnaping is solved somewhat in the manner of popular detective films of the time; and the kidnapers’ escape was a skewed take on a WWII-era war film. The Coens even chose to use 35mm film rather than digital, to suit the technology to the period on screen.
Hail, Caesar is not the Coens’ best film by any means, its comedy is very broad at times, and it may be a little disappointing to Coen brothers fans. It is still an imaginative and funny movie which achieves what it set out to do, and will be especially enjoyable to anyone familiar with 1950s Hollywood productions.