The most difficult thing for me to accomplish when dealing with the new Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! is to give a summary of what actually transpires in the movie. This is not a knock on the film at all- really quite the opposite. I absolutely loved the movie thoroughly, one of my favorite theatre outing this year (and yes, I know the year is still very young.) That being said, I can see this new comedy from two of the greatest filmmakers of our time still being on my favorites list come December. It really is just that damned good.
Joel and Ethan Coen have always been amazing storytellers with all their films but their comedy films stand out as geniusly wordy delights. There’s, of course, the staple favorites like The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and Fargo, which I absolutely love, but their oddball films have been some of the gems in my own collection like Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. I feel that Hail, Caesar! will fit into the latter category as films that might go over the head of the casual movie goer or people who have no knowledge or interest in the classic Golden age of Hollywood, around the 1940s and 50s. For me, this is what made me love it, plus that usual Coen panache. Others may be turned away by how disjointed it seems but for me it all comes together brilliantly.
In the film, Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer who works for the head of Capitol Pictures. A good man who shoulders everyone else’s consciousness and stresses, it’s Eddie’s job to put out all the small fires around the studio lot, including hiding affairs, covering up actor’s and actresses’ scandals and smoothing the relationships with theses talents between directors, producers and the press. For the course of the film, Mannix has a day that would most likely break a lesser man in this department.
Firstly, in the middle of shooting a landmark Bible picture called Hail, Caesar!, the star of the film Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped, forcing Mannix to dance around searing questions from competing tabloid reporters, who just happen to be twin sisters, played by Tilda Swinton. Second, Mannix is urged to move a western star Hobie Doyle (played by the scene stealing Alden Ehrenreich) from his usual fare to an elegant drama under the direction of Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who immediately finds out that Doyle is not much of a dialogue actor at all.
To add further complications to everything, Mannix must also protect the image of wholesome star actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who reveals that she is pregnant just as her new film is going into production. As she is both unwed and unsure of who the father is, Eddie must scramble to put a believable story in place or let a Capitol Pictures star get destroyed by the press. This all coincides against Mannix trying to be a good husband and father, including quitting smoking for his doting wife and dealing with his son’s sporting problems and his daughter’s school failings. The issue is also that Mannix is so busy fixing everyone else’s lives that he has no time for his own family.
It’s a given that the Coens’ writing for Hail, Caesar! is the same brilliance we always come to expect from them but the added sheen of gold to this particular movie is the beautiful homages to classic Hollywood and all the politics surrounding it. The movie opens on an epic Ben-Hur like film piece, stunning the audience with it’s impeccable detail, and then a cut is called and the facade of the Roman Empire is stripped away and we see the reality of the situations. It’s really quite stunning and a fantastic tongue in cheek ode to the era. This happens consistently, whether it’s the flighty Laurentz drama Merrily We Dance or any of Doyle’s showy and stunt filled western, all of it is tackled with the same respect and love of cinema we know the Coens live and breathe.
The sheer vastness of the cast is also amazing but something totally expected from Joel and Ethan. We have actors that have worked with them in the past like Clooney, Brolin, Swinton and, of course, Frances McDormand, who is Joel’s wife but we have new bloods to a Coen film like Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum, who seem to revel in the joy of making a film with these impeccable filmmakers. It really must be a dream job. I also can’t state enough how fantastic Alden Ehrenreich is in this film. People will surely be talking about him for a long time after.
Shot by probably my favorite cinematographer ever, Roger Deakins, Hail, Caesar! is a film that is completely rewarding on all levels. It’s stunning to look at and will hit you in the comedy range from “mirthless chuckle” to uproarious laughter. This film is yet another Coen Brothers movie that I will watch over and over again, pulling something new from it every time. This is your first great film of 2016, ladies and gentleman, drink it in. I give Hail, Caesar! a five out of five.