Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix
George Clooney as Baird Whitlock
Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle
Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz
Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran
Tilda Swinton as Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker
Frances McDormand as C. C. Calhoun
Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney
Jonah Hill as Joseph Silverman
This isn’t the first time the Coen brothers found their material by taking a trip back to the producers’ offices and studio soundstages of Hollywood’s golden age. In a similar picture, Barton Fink, the ardent playwright John Turturro makes his way to Los Angeles to write B-side wrestling scripts. The difference is that Hail, Caesar! is a much brighter movie, and it is purely comedic compared to its bleak and gloomy predecessor. It has also been created with an adaptable and loose assurance and a lightheartedness that easily makes up for the obvious lack of substance.
The year is 1951, and Hail, Caesar! is the name given to the film within a film. This clunky Roman epic contains religious overtones more akin to Quo Vadis than Ben-Hur, even though it shares the subtitle of the latter: A Tale of the Christ. George Clooney plays the star actor, a man named Baird Whitlock, who after slugging back the tainted contents of a wine goblet, suddenly disappears from the set while he is in still in full costume. Soon, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio boss, begins to get notes and phone calls from a group calling themselves “The Future,” who demand $100,000 for the safe return of Whitlock.
It’s easy to recognize that the kidnapping plot is similar to that of “The Nihilists” in The Big Lebowski, but that isn’t the film’s central focus. Viewers certainly aren’t on pins and needles waiting to discover who did it and why. The kidnapping is just a small part of a much bigger canvas.
You can feel the Coens are enjoying themselves immensely as they fill in every little detail, from the kind of breakfast that movie extras are offered to the exact stationery type favored by the early 50s communists. Interestingly, the film uses a number of the same elements that the recently released blacklist biopic Trumbo uses: philistine movie producers, sociopathic gossip columnists, red-scare politics. But it mixes them up into a format that abolishes Trumbo’s pedagogical tone.
The Coens have filled the film with storylines, with the majority starting out as if they are unconnected to the main events, but towards the end, the viewer discovers that they are all part of the same tangled web. Above all, it is an opportunity to show off their movie-buff credentials, as the film studio setting lets them recreate a variety of contemporary products, from the drawing-room melodramas to elaborate aquamusicals to cheap westerns, such as those that feature Scarlett Johansson as Esther Williams, the bathing beauty.
It is clear that both the directors and the cast are having tons of fun with it. The part that stands out is debatably that of Ralph Fiennes, who offers the latest string of comic tours de force. He plays the role of a director who is trying to get sophisticated diction out of the stifled tones of an actor called Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich), who is employed only as a singing cowboy.
Ehrenreich turns out to be a bit of a find, easily being able to stand up to a number of bigger-name actors distributed by Coens across the film’s smaller roles. By introducing Agyness Deyn, Jonah Hill, and Tilda Swinton alongside Channing and Fiennes, Johansson, it’s entirely possible the Coens have hit a peak star-cameo. That does not even include the walk-ons for cult figures such as Dolph Lundgren and Christopher Lambert (as Hail Caesar!’s director).
If we had to note a negative effect of this group of small-scale delights is that it tends to swamp the powerful presence of Brolin. Technically in the lead role, with his dark countenance and stern dynamism, he gets little attention in the film. It is clear that some of his scenes are designed to radiate a kind of James Ellroy boor, but they appear to be a bit out of kilter with the current spry mood. Then again, it really can’t be said to be a real weakness: Hail, Caesar! is well-crafted and tons of fun.
Certainly one to enjoy!