Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest doesn’t hides its themes: it opens on a shot of a cross and follows a Hollywood fixer’s Sisyphean task to keep a bustling film studio in check as it churns out movies that are arguably worthwhile. Re-uniting a cast of Coen regulars (George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and many more) and focusing on well-trod Coen topics like religion and filmmaking (most closely recalling A Serious Man and Barton Fink respectively) doesn’t help the feeling of familiarity that pervades Hail, Caesar!, but the Coens, ever elusive and elliptical, seed the film with enough promising ideas to keep things interesting.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a studio head in all but name who takes orders from a shadowy New York figure and runs himself ragged keeping all the outsized personalities who make and star in his movies in check. Clooney plays Baird Whitlock (proving the Coens’ gift for naming characters has only grown stronger), a blowhard star whose disappearance from a sword-and-sandal epic kicks off a series of events that allows the Coens to ruminate on the nature of art, religion, Old Hollywood, and even the free market vs. communism.
As Hail, Caesar! takes place in the Golden Age of Hollywood in 1951, the Coens have ample opportunity to both engage in and subvert numerous movie tropes. Ralph Fiennes plays a meticulous and potentially closeted director whose art is being diminished by studio notes; Alden Ehrenreich is a dim cowboy-turned-star who allows the studio to control his every move, right down to who he dates; and Scarlett Johansson is the sex bomb siren whose wholesome image belies a (relatively) wild personal life.
With Brolin’s manic Mannix as the one constant tying together these disparate threads, it’s at times hard to see where the Coens are going plotwise, especially as the film slows down quite often. Sometimes these digressions are joyful and fun, such as the two (and a half) bonafide song-and-dance numbers that take time out from skewering Hollywood’s excesses to simply celebrate them (Channing Tatum’s introduction is a delight and a marvel of visual storytelling). Other times the dialogue can drag slightly, exhibiting the usual punch the Coens are known for but missing some elemental spark.
But man, what a cast. Besides Brolin’s admirable immersion into period details, many are game to be self-deprecating: Clooney lampoons easily swayed actors, Johansson plays off her sex symbol image and Tatum suggests the surprising secret life of a triple threat actor. Tilda Swinton, by this point a national treasure, is reliably weird. The self-referential aspects ensure that knowledge of the Coens’ filmography and the actors’ past roles can add context and insight, as the film rarely provides any exposition and instead relies on situational cues.
Hail, Caesar! is, quite simply, packed with ideas. Many are on the nose and plainly presented, as Mannix’s studio Capitol Pictures represents the forces of capitalism against the disgruntled communists who kidnap Whitlock and hold him for ransom, indoctrinating him in the process. And whereas A Serious Man wrestled with the nature of the Jewish faith, especially in the face of a seemingly indifferent or outright hostile creator, Caesar tackles the heady topic of Christianity and what it means to be a “good” person (complete with multiple confessional scenes).
This to me was the most interesting thread, as Mannix struggles with the worth of his career, trying to choose between what’s easy and what’s right as he stares down a competing job offer from an aerospace firm that’ll set him up for life. He toils constantly at the studio, missing dinners and baseball games and sacrificing time with his family to provide for them. Is Mannix creating art? What little we see of the potboilers that Capitol produces suggests otherwise, but he is fully engaged in what he does.
And that quixotic journey may be enough. There is pleasure in the doing and in the creation of art (even when it’s “low” like a singing cowboy movie), and that seems to be something that Hail, Caesar! argues. The images and sounds on screen are artificial, created to stir emotions in audiences but also to separate them from their money. But sometimes art or ideas or something real can poke through the commerce. Which is always nice too.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 106 minutes