Hail, Caesar! (2016): Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. Running Time: 116 minutes.
It’s been a few years since the Coen Brothers last graced the big screen with their directorial presence, but at long last they’re back, and in typical fashion; their new film, a broad comedic riff on Golden-Era Hollywood called Hail, Caesar! is a complete tonal and thematic 180 from their last work, the subtle, masterfully heartbreaking Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s also (and this too is typical for them) much more multi-layered, oddball, and complicated than what you might think you’re getting based on the trailers, or at least appears to be upon first viewing. The question of whether or not the movie does in fact contain a deeper, more nuanced examination of classic Hollywood than some think is a question I can’t answer until I’ve seen it at least once more and mulled it over at least twice more, but it is still superbly well-acted, broadly funny, and packed with enough stylistic Easter eggs for fans of classic cinema to pick out that I can wholeheartedly recommend it, and consider it one of the best and most interesting February (USA)/March (Germany) releases we’ve had in years.
Our main character is Eddie Mannix, played to a T by the always-dependable Josh Brolin, Head of Physical Production at Capital Pictures. And when I say “physical,” I mean it- he’s basically the studio bulldog, roaming around Hollywood at literally all hours of the night and day and directly intervening in each and every crisis that comes along concerning the studio’s big stars (remember, these were the days when there was some meaning to actors at least pretending to live as paragons of moral Christian virtue). In our opening scene, he breaks up a naughty, 3 a.m. photoshoot involving one of the up-and-coming lady actresses, slaps her around until she agrees to go quietly, the police shrug it all off, and we are officially off to the glittering, gilded races.
This particular several-days-in-the-life-of-Mannix features four main plotlines, all running parallel to each other. The one getting biggest billing in the film’s marketing involves George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, one of the longtime studio heavyweights and set to star in a Ben Hur-esque prestige picture called, what else, Hail, Caesar! After a round of filming, he is drugged and kidnapped by two of the extras (one of whom, to my delight, is played by Vork from The Guild) and whisked off to a beach house in Malibu by a strange group of older men calling themselves “The Future.” That, however, is just one part of a whole. We also have side plots featuring Scarlett Johansson as a divorced starlet whose soon-to-show pregnancy threatens the family-oriented studio with a potential image crisis, frustrated top-down efforts to change the public image of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), traditionally a Western mainstay, by inserting him into a classic British stage drama and setting him up with another of the studio’s big-name actresses, and the behind-the-scenes antics of dancing superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who is a lot more than the simple performer he first appears to be.
This might sound like a lot to pack into a sub-two hour movie, and it is, but all that debatably ends up being little more than window dressing. The largest bulk of the film’s running time consist of extended homages to the various genre big-scale genre productions and musical tropes that Golden Era Hollywood made famous, from shoot-em-up, stunt-heavy Westerns, to stuffily costumed ballroom dramas, to crass overt religious prestige flicks, to painstakingly choreographed (and wholly tangential) tap-dance numbers in bar rooms, and much, much more. For all their claims to abhor researching for their films, the dedication to recreating so much of the old school studio system in look and feel is, all on its own, worth the price of admission for any classics fan. I imagine one could make an extensive board game out of identifying all the films and figures referenced here (Mannix himself is based on actual historical person of the same name).
That said, despite the technical and physical grandeur on display and the broad bawdiness of a lot of the humor, there are a world of tiny details stuck into the sides of the frame that let us deduce a slew of information about Mannix and the universe he inhabits. Casual asides reveal a widespread assumption that the then-recent spread of TV will kill the film industry before too long, and there is a wealth of commentary on the history of gender roles in film production to be found in a side scene featuring Francis McDormand as a chain-smoking woman apparently responsible for all of each day’s grunt editing work, which she does sequestered away in a dark closet of a room (the scene also functions as the brilliant payoff to a joke set up over half an hour beforehand). The Red Scare is ever-present, and even plays a key part in the film’s conclusion.
These sequences are so long and detailed that it almost seems like the “story” of the film is something of a joke, an excuse to move from one tribute film set to another, not unlike how many classic movie musicals were deliberately designed to allow for as many non-sequitur song-and-dance numbers as possible. Unfortunately, this makes it rather difficult to parse out any connecting threads between the tissues of the film, and can easily lead one to think that the film is ultimately more than a diverting a fun ride meant to poke fun at collective studio nostalgia, albeit in a very superficial sense.
I think there’s more to the film than that. What, I can’t quite say yet, since I will need to wait for the DVD release in order to see it again, but there were enough symbolic undertones I took away from the experience to wholly dismiss it. The real-life Mannix was kind of an awful person (and may have actually killed a man), not at all the conscientious Catholic Brolin plays, but even Brolin’s portrayal seems to be a bit of a show he puts up for the world (all the world is a stage, after all). The scenes where he breaks his cool and hits actors who step out of line (and the terror they are immediately seized with) hints at something darker in his character he might be desperate to hide (and he isn’t the only cast member with a desperately dark secret to hide). I found a scene with his wife (a cameo role by Alison Pill) to be very telling- her bearing and words scream “I FEEL NEGLECTED AND IGNORED,” but being as caught up in the glittering endlessness of showbiz as he is, Mannix seems completely oblivious, or maybe just doesn’t care.
Or perhaps I imagined all that and Hail, Caesar! really is just a popcorn flick the Coens tossed out while gearing up for their next really great project. Even if it ultimately is that though, it’s still a fun enough romp that I loved watching the movie, and found it well worth a watch for anyone missing the olden days of song-and-dance cinema.