HAIL, CAESAR! (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13

for some suggestive content, language, and smoking
Released: February 5, 2016
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill

It’s not often that a movie gives us a prolonged discussion about the ontological nature of Christ (in a conversation between a Catholic Priest, Eastern Orthodox Bishop, Protestant Minister, and Jewish Rabbi, no less). A conversation that’s funny and theologically sound. Yet when it shows up in a Coen Brothers movie, it’s not entirely a surprise.

Neither is Scarlett Johansson playing a mermaid. In the oddest, most clever of ways, there’s a little something for everybody.

Hail, Caesar! is the latest from filmmaking brother duo Joel and Ethan Coen, whose unique (and Oscar-winning) brand of dry-yet-goofy morality tales – with strong doses of dramatic consequences and superior cinematic craft – have resulted in true American classics like Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and The Big Lebowski (to name just a few).

Hail, Caesar! doesn’t consistently reach the heights of their best work, nor does its loose narrative necessarily have the ambition to try, but it is quintessential Coens from start to finish, with a thematic depth that belies the film’s predominant silliness. Even when producing a lark (a sumptuously made throwback of a lark, mind you), the Coens still find a way to make you go “Hmmmm”, probably because being contemplative about the human condition is so wired into who they are, as is simultaneously poking fun at the pretense of such serious self-reflection.

Circa the early 1950s, Hail, Caesar! is set at the peak (and near the end) of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The studio system is at the height of its power while unaware of its impending collapse, just prior to when film artists became freelancers rather than powerless contract players (a subplot revolving around a cabal of Communist screenwriters hints at this forthcoming shift). This allows the Coens to play in all the genres from that era, making for a gorgeously shot slapstick homage to Old Hollywood; thematic layers aside, that was clearly Joel and Ethan’s chief impetus for making this whole farce to begin with. It’s done through the lens of the fictional Capitol Studios and its various films in production across the studio lot.

While previews have focused primarily on the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!” starring Capitol’s marquee A-lister Baird Whitlock (Coens’ vet George Clooney), that’s just one of the classic styles sampled here. We also see lavish replications of musicals, period romances, Busby Berkeley dance reviews, and Westerns (the hokey sendup “Lazy Ol’ Moon” may be the best – albeit brief – Western parody since Blazing Saddles, and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich lands impressively on our radars as the simple-minded cowboy troubadour). There’s a lot of laugh-out-loud moments here; no doubt many more were had on-set. This ensemble and crew clearly had a great time making this movie, and we have a great time watching it.

There’s no film noir among the production sets we visit, but that genre is visualized through the story’s broader connective through-line – and character – Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life Eddie Mannix of MGM; played by Josh Brolin, another Coen vet). Every studio had a fixer, an exec with the thankless job of keeping the talent in line, making sure these primary assets (i.e. movie stars) stayed clear of tabloid scandal. Mannix is that guy for Capitol. His interaction with talent is always at their worst moments, when someone is jeopardizing either a big budget shoot or their wholesome public image. This 24/7 job is taxing for Mannix, both physically and spiritually.

It’s through Mannix that the broad, sophisticated comedy of Hail, Caesar! is given a weightier subtext. He’s haunted by a lack of purpose, as the grueling grind of high profile damage control is for the sole (and soulless) stability of an industry and culture that’s devoid of intellectual or moral bearings. Racked with existential despair, this devout Catholic expresses his piety not through attending Daily Mass but rather daily confession. In the words of one of the film’s standout comic moments: “Would that it t’were so simple.”

Rather than bogging down the Coens’ exuberant penchant for ingeniously staged satirical absurdity – which includes, but is not limited to, the hilariously oblivious homoeroticism of Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque dance numbers – there’s just enough of Mannix’s search for meaning to give Hail, Caesar! some meaning of its own. It also provides a basis for meaning to seep into various subplots without feeling forced when it does, including a climax that portrays just how moving a humble spiritual awakening – at the foot of the cross, no less – can be. Even when delivered by a credulous movie star.

And really, once you break this movie down on those terms, Hail, Caesar! is as honest a reflection by the Coens as to what drives them as filmmakers, as artists; that paradoxical tension between significance and self-effacement. On one hand they hold a meek reticence about their own worth, often expressed with coy sarcasm, such as when Ethan once quipped that their 2001 drama The Man Who Wasn’t There was shot in black-and-white so that people would know it’s “important”. Yet there’s too much exploration in their films about mankind’s compulsive sinful nature to dismiss them as “just movies”. (They made a Job-like drama literally called A Serious Man, after all.)

In Hail, Caesar!, that depth is found in Mannix’s mid-life crisis. And in true Coen fashion, the message here is that once you’ve endured that “dark night of the soul” and come out the other side with spiritual peace and clarity, you sort of have to look back at the struggle, shake your head, and laugh a bit at the overwrought import of your own angst. Sure, it was sincere – and necessary – but come on.

And that’s the beauty of the Coens. They’re as deeply philosophical as any filmmakers we’ve ever seen, but they also know that, at some point, we have to stop taking ourselves so seriously. The fact that they always seem to strike the appropriate – even moral – balance between those two extremes shows us that they probably have a lot more figured out than they like to let on.

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