Editor’s Note: Hail, Caesar! opened in wide theatrical release February 5, 2016.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend us your ears (or really, your eyes and only for a few moments). We come here not to praise William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (it’s received no shortage of acclaim over the last five or six centuries), but to praise the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!, an utterly delightful, unapologetically affectionate, intoxicatingly brilliant send-up, satire, spoof (what-have-you) of Hollywood’s Golden Age more than half a century ago. Flitting through then popular genres, mixing meta-humor with barbed, socio-political commentary, and period-specific, studio-era musical numbers, Hail, Caesar! represents probably our finest living filmmakers at their most meta-textual and meta-cinematic. Hail, Caesar! is Peak Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen doing what they have been doing best over the last four decades: Delivering intricately textured, multi-layered storytelling that can be thoroughly appreciated on any number of levels, from plot to story, from context to subtext, from character to drama (and back again).
Hail, Caesar!, an utterly delightful, unapologetically affectionate, intoxicatingly brilliant send-up, satire, spoof (what-have-you) of Hollywood’s Golden Age more than half a century ago.
At least outwardly, Hail, Caesar! centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the “Head of Physical Production” at the fictitious Capitol Pictures, a mid-tier, dream- and escapism-selling motion picture company. The Coen Brothers’ Mannix shares a name with real-life studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, but the crisis manager we meet in Hail, Caesar! bears only a superficial resemblance to his long-gone, decades-old counterpart. Despite spending his days and nights ensuring production runs smoothly – up to and including “saving” a young starlet from revealing, career-ending photo shoots or helping an Esther Williams-inspired aqua-musical star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), cover-up an unexpected, out-of-wedlock pregnancy via novel means – Mannix suffers from a serious guilt complex that sends him to a Catholic confessional every morning, something even his priest/confidante thinks is just too much. The Coen Brothers’ light mockery of organized religion and its discontents extends to the four religious leaders, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, an Orthodox patriarch, and a Jewish rabbi he invites to a meet-and-greet at studio HQ.
Mannix intends to get the respective leaders sign-off on his studio’s latest big-budget, relentlessly earnest Biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!, subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” (an obvious, but no less humorous nod to Ben-Hur’s subtitle). While the Christian leaders scuffle over religious doctrine and dogma, the rabbi looks on with mild, slightly exasperated irritation, unsurprising given his detached, rational, skeptical approach to Christians and Christianity. Mannix’s earnestness, however, eventually wins the day – or more likely, simply ends the conversation. Mannix primarily cares about keeping the film-within-the-film (Hail, Caesar!) on track and satisfying the offscreen, never-seen studio owner, a Mr. Skank in New York. The best laid plans of men named Mannix goes predictably awry, of course, when Hail, Caesar!’s buffoonish leading man/movie star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), disappears. Mannix assumes his leading man has gone off on a bender, but the truth is far more insidious and hilarious than he imagines.
Far more optimistic and hopeful than their last straight-up comedy, 2008’s Burn After Reading, Hail, Caesar! treats its characters not with contempt, condescension, or derision, but with affection, even appreciation for their ability to live both inside and outside the Hollywood dream factory.
While Mannix’s frenzied attempts to find Whitlock and restore him to this rightful place on the set of the Biblical epic provides Hail, Caesar! with the equivalent of a narrative spine, not to mention a modicum of momentum, it’s primarily an excuse for the Coen Brothers to take moviegoers on a picaresque travelogue through once-popular movie genres, from the dopey, singing Westerns that once made Gene Autry a star – here doubled by Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) – to the Gene Kelly-inspired, hilariously homoerotic, sailors-on-leave musical number featuring one of Capitol Pictures’ biggest stars, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), to the high-society comedy of manners converted in mid-production into a star vehicle for the ill-equipped, woefully unprepared Doyle. Doyle proves to be the source of constant consternation for a drolly patronizing director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Mannix also has to contend with disgruntled screenwriters-turned-communists who unironically call themselves “the Future” (their disgruntlement has less to do with rigid, pseudo-scientific ideology and everything to with percentages and fair compensation) and twin, scandal-seeking gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), closely modeled after Hedda Hopper.
Far more optimistic and hopeful than their last straight-up comedy, 2008’s Burn After Reading (a reflection of Bush-era cynicism and ideological exhaustion), Hail, Caesar! treats its characters not with contempt, condescension, or derision (an oft-repeated claim directed against the Coen Brothers), but with affection, even appreciation for their ability to live both inside and outside the Hollywood dream factory. In Mannix, a dry, deadpan figure who seems to have stepped out of a neo-noir into the blinding Southern California sunshine and decided to stay, the Coen Brothers have found a worthy Virgil to our collective Homer (“The Odyssey” loosely inspired Joel and Ethan’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?). And if Mannix doesn’t do anything for you, there’s always the inspired cameos and seeming tangents to musical numbers and mock-serious discussions of Marxism and the Hollywood studio system (with a special cameo by almost-but-not-quite-forgotten mid-century political philosopher Herbert Marcuse) to keep you consistently, giddily engrossed throughout another Coen Brothers classic-in-the-making.
An affectionate look at the Hollywood dream factory, Hail, Caesar! is a delightful and picaresque travelogue through once-popular movie genres, and one of the Coen Brothers' finest films to date.