Editor’s Note: Hail, Caesar! opened in wide theatrical release February 5, 2016.
The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have often been accused of mocking the characters and the topics they make comedies about, and it’s easy to make that leap if you don’t understand that poking fun at someone or something is often a form of affection. In every film they make, their love and appreciation for their characters and their topics shine through. Just because they make fun of something doesn’t mean they’re attacking or belittling it. In the case of their greatest comedies, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis and now Hail, Caesar!, there is a warmth directed toward their characters and their locations and timeframes.
In every film Joel and Ethan Coen make, their love and appreciation for their characters and their topics shine through.
In the case of Hail, Caesar!, the Coens are giving us a comedy based in early ‘50s Hollywood at the beginning of the end of the powerful Studio System. The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), studio chief for the fictitious Capitol Pictures through the duties of a studio head of the day, which was overseeing productions but also managing the public images of his contract stars and it’s that aspect of his job that takes up the most time and effort. His troubles include getting DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson), an Esther Williams-type star who is known for her swimming pictures, married (to her third husband) because she’s pregnant and at the time, a single mother wasn’t respectable; Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Erhenreich) who is being pushed by the studio owner for a drawing-room drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (a Laurence Olivier stand-in played by Ralph Finnes) and a high-profile star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who gets kidnapped by communists at a critical point in filming the studio’s major prestige picture Hail, Caesar!, a Ben-Hur style epic that is nearing completion.
The screenplay, written by Joel and Ethan Coen (who also direct and edit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes), shows a knowledge of the time period and the studio system. It’s marvelous to see the parallels they put into the film, like a director with a heavy accent that is nearly unintelligible a la Michael Curtiz or the authentic production numbers they do for DeeAnna’s film and for Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly stand in Burt Gurney (for whom they created a kind of gay version of Anchors Away or On the Town), and the cartoonish seriousness that is often a huge part of the sword and sandal epics of the day. Period detail and understanding of the studio system aside, the screenplay offers a typically Coen convoluted plot with a hundred different elements that all coincide, though some peripherally, that forms a kaleidoscope of story elements that are all off the wall and laugh-out-loud funny. One of the more brilliant things the script does is that it shows the dichotomy of the movie star, onscreen and off and the fact that a star’s public persona is often manufactured (then by the studio, now by publicists).
Hail, Caesar! is a wonderful return to a genre the Coen Brothers worked in almost exclusively for years.
The knowledge extends to the visual realm as well. The Coen Brothers took time in creating their films-within-the-film. The Capitol Studios Hail, Caesar! Has the coloring of an early ‘50s big budget extravaganza, accurately recreated by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. They even frame the film like it were of the time it is set, keeping things close to the middle of the frame. They keep the picture going at a fast pace without making it frenetic and they make sure that none of the characters are lost in the shuffle.
Everyone in the film seems to be having a great time. Brolin’s long-suffering studio chief is mulling a move to a high-profile job outside pictures because he’s constantly on the go and rarely gets to see his family, but he does his job very well and keeps his studio humming despite some difficult circumstances. Clooney is reprising the character he normally plays for the Coens, which is to say, a total lunkhead. It’s fun to see Clooney take these parts because he so rarely gets to step outside his typical cool, confident roles. The Coens have recently joked that their four films with Clooney represent their “Knucklehead Trilogy” because only a knucklehead trilogy could have four parts, and the only thing linking them is Clooney’s characters’ general stupidity. The side roles, occupied by Johansson, Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Francis McDormand and a host of others, are joyously done.
It’s been a long time since the Coens veered into screwball comedy territory. The last time was The Ladykillers in 2004, a terrible remake of the fantastic 1955 Alec Guinness comedy of the same name, so it’s obvious why they’ve stayed away from it despite making some great ones like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink (their other poke/homage to filmmaking and the troubles with it), and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. They’ve finally come back to the spirit and feel of those earlier films with Hail, Caesar! and it’s great to see. It’s possible that in their attention to detail and exercising their knowledge of the studio system that this film will alienate some of fans of their more popular films, specifically The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men but with something this good, not knowing exactly what is being referenced doesn’t take away from how funny the film is, but knowing enhances the experience exponentially.
Hail, Caesar! is a wonderful return to a genre the Coen Brothers worked in almost exclusively for years. Their blend of parody and homage works excellently together and their convoluted story keeps people interested throughout while their sight gags keeps the audience laughing throughout. Hail, Caesar! also serves as a reminder that the Coen Brothers are an extremely versatile pair of filmmakers, able to bandy about between drama, high comedy and low comedy with ease. It’s just another example of how talented these two are and always have been. It’s a shame the film was released in February amongst the award season holdovers and the typical atrocities that are normally dumped at the beginning of the year. It deserves to have a wider audience and a better release instead of being relegated to being overlooked in favor catching an Oscar nominee before the awards.
Hail, Caesar! is a funny, brilliant, off-the-wall satire from Joel and Ethan Coen, and a delightful return to the slapstick genre.