Who doesn’t love a film about cinema itself? A while ago, I reviewed Trumbo, a film that told the true story of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who was blacklisted from Hollywood for his Communist leanings. However interesting as that concept is, the film itself was mediocre. That wasn’t, however, the last time Communism in Hollywood would be explored, because legendary cinematic visionaries Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a hilarious and outrageous comedy that explores this period, along with creating a tender and fascinating love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This review shouldn’t turn into a piece that only praises the Coen Brothers, because by this point, if it hasn’t been confirmed and committed to the history books that they are a pair of cinematic geniuses, there is nothing else that they can do to prove it. They have made more classics that most filmmakers, and unlike their fellow acclaimed auteurs, the Coen Brothers don’t have one singular, popularly-cited film that is considered their masterpiece, but rather a few that many people cite as their individual favorite. I will be perfectly honest here – Hail, Caesar! is not in any way one of their greatest films – but it is certainly one of their most enjoyable films, and while films such as Fargo, A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men are considerably better, Hail, Caesar! is a brilliant film all on its own, and represents the Coen Brothers have an innate talent to not only be perfectly capable at drama, but to also make a brilliant comedy (but that isn’t proved here only – The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, and the underrated Burn After Reading, also prove this point).
Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (played by the wonderful Josh Brolin), the real-life Hollywood fixer that ensured that the private lives of the stars stayed out of the gossip columns. He has a difficult job, but he does it with suitable aplomb and grace, and becomes a powerful player within the Hollywood studio system. That is until he is faced with a dilemma – his studio is making a film of literal epic proportions – a swords-and-sandals epic about the birth of Jesus Christ. Not only is Mannix concerned with the fact that his film must not offend a single person (which seems to be the Coen Brothers’ subtle commentary on modern audience’s sensitive nature at times), and to make matters even worse, the star of the film. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by some Communists, and Mannix has to fix it…somehow. Add in a cast of characters, such as the charming but utterly untalented Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is fashioned to be a leading man (but fails), Brooklyn-born, clean leading lady DeeAnn Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who becomes pregnant just before her film goes into production and charming leading man Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who has a much more sinister side to him than his tap-dancing would have you believe. Add in a host of cameos from some very established stars, and it is an all-star event that never fails to disappoint.
Perhaps the best part of Hail, Caesar! is how the Coen Brothers managed to bring out the best qualities of their cast – Brolin, Clooney, Tatum and Johansson are all very modern, very popular stars, but they are also performers that would have fit perfectly into the Golden Age of Hollywood. They possess the charm and appeal that made stars of the studio system so irrestitable. Josh Brolin has the tough but warm-hearted appeal of Humphrey Bogart. George Clooney has the dashing good looks and often very silly talents of Cary Grant. Channing Tatum feels like a dead-ringer for this generation’s Gene Kelly (and his big moment in this film really confirmed this suspicion that has been growing since Tatum became a big star) and Scarlett Johansson has the sweet, but sometimes hard, charms of the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day. The film required them to truly inhabit the minds of what a movie star in the 1950s would do – and in a way, this is an honest and accurate depiction of that period in Hollywood history, not only because it is well-written and beautifully crafted, but because the actors are truly very convincing throughout.
The smaller roles in this film were the biggest delights – of course, it is not a secret that I adore Tilda Swinton, and this film offered us all the opportunity to see her fantastic comedic skills…as two characters. Playing the malicious twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker, they prove to be out for blood as vicious gossip columnists (one of which resents the title). Ralph Fiennes, who is truly amazing in almost everything he does, is brilliant as Laurence Laurentz, the persnickity and uptight director who tries to turn Hobie into a dramatic actor, but seems to fail miserably. Jonah Hill is wonderful but in too small of a role, and Frances McDormand does her obligatory performance in her husband’s film, this time playing a chain-smoking editor. The roles might not always be very big, but they are certainly all very interesting and well-developed, even if I could have seen an entire film just based on one of these characters being equally as wonderful.
Hail, Caesar! occupies a strange slot in the Coen Brothers’ films, particularly their comedies. It isn’t a weak comedy, like The Ladykillers, nor is it an iconic comedy like The Big Lebowski. It is squarely in the middle of their filmography. I would say that George Clooney is their bad omen – all of their previous collaborations with him have not done too well (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading were all great films, but not ultimately successful, critically or commercially), but rather, I think the Coen Brothers were not aiming to make a film that would sweep awards (how else would you explain their decision to release it in the awards-poisonous February?), but rather to make a film that would counteract the glut of action films that come out at this time of the year – a film that can be unique and enjoyable and very different from anything else you can see at this time of the year. Honestly, at the cinema I saw it at, the only films playing were awards-season carry-overs from last year, and big-budget blockbusters. It is a unique film that doesn’t quite fit into what we expected from this time of the year. Some have criticized the early release date – I personally love the daring nature of having a prestige film like this released at this time of the year. The film is doing moderately well at the box office, so I wouldn’t begrudge the Coen Brothers for releasing this film this early – it is surely making money, most likely from those who aren’t really in the mood to see Deadpool, to be perfectly honest.
Hail, Caesar! is an utterly fantastic film. Funny, beautifully shot (by the maestro himself, Roger Deakins) and gloriously well-written, it is a great film, and if this is how the cinematic year begins, I surely hope it will be a great one. I thought it was a great film, and is absolutely light-hearted, and will set all my fellow cinephile’s hearts aflutter with all the classic Hollywood details, but will also entertain general audiences, because it is just a fun, quirky little film from two of the greatest filmmakers working today, and quite simply another triumphant feather in their cap of cinematic diversity, and they have transcended into another sub-genre, and I can’t wait for what they do next, but I don’t expect it to be on the same level of Hail, Caesar! , mainly because…well, there isn’t any way they are going to repeat themselves, will they? A great film, and while I have an entire year of cinema ahead of me, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this show up as one of my favorites of the year. Great work.