HAIL, CAESAR! (9 out of 10) Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Running time 106 Minutes; Rated PG-13 for "some suggestive content and smoking"; In wide release February 5, 2016
From Oscar-winning duo Joel and Ethan Coen, comes a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood, full of in-jokes and homages to long-lost film genres. It is inhabited by a stable of Coen regulars and every character is unique and memorable, overflowing with quips and witty repartee. The plot, as if it mattered, is Capitol Pictures’ biggest star, Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped just prior to the filming of the climax of their biggest prestige film, “Hail, Caesar!” Enter their fixer, Eddie Mannix (Brolin), who juggles the recovery of their biggest star with a dozen other problems, from trying to quit smoking to managing the personal lives of the studio’s other stars. He's also considering quitting and taking a more straight job, so as he goes about his day you can see him processing: "Is this all worth it?" What unfolds is a plot and set of themes so Coen-y, it will reward longtime fans and also serve as a easy entrance to their films for those unfamiliar.
For a film of this depth and fun, not just one review will suffice, so Andy and Bryan put their heads together to tell you why this is worth your time.
Bryan Young: As a film buff, I feel partial to love letters to the film industry. Whether it’s stories of Hollywood blacklists like “Guilty by Suspicion” or “The Player” or even a documentary about Robert Evans, there’s something there to learn. The Coen Brothers have wrapped up all of their favorite products from the post-war, pre-blacklist Hollywood studio system and given us a thrilling ride through two days in the life of a problem solving studio boss played by Josh Brolin. They’ve created a structure that allows characters on the massive fictional lot of Capitol Pictures to fade in and out of the film, but remain memorable enough so that we can remember who was who when their names come up later, unfolding in the mystery of the kidnapped star. Just about every type of film from that era is represented, and that’s the brilliance of the structure. How else could you start with the structure of a noir and include a Gene Kelly dance number, a Buzby Berkeley style aquatic dance number, a biblical epic, a western, a dinner drama, and all the intrigue of a kidnap plot? Setting it on a movie studio lot is a stroke of genius.
This felt like a love letter to not only the cinema of the era, but the brilliant characters that have brought life to the characters and stories of the Coen brothers, past and present.
Andy Wilson: Exactly. There are (at least) three levels you can enjoy this film on. The first is just a beautiful homage to Hollywood. The second is the meta-level, which could be dismissed as a love letter to themselves or fanservice, but it’s done so elegantly you don’t see the brushstrokes.
The third level is as a beautiful film that stands on its own merits as an exploration of a man’s faith, his duty, his work. These are also familiar themes in the Coen’s other films, which is why it feels so much a part of “their” universe, but also the universe of 1950’s Hollywood.
There’s also a political/ideological edge to this, although it’s likely the Coens’ tongues are too firmly planted in their cheeks that they don’t mean any of it. Without giving away a minor spoiler, the people behind Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping have an ideological reason behind it. And like the nihilists in “The Big Lebowski,” their ideology becomes an opportunity to discuss larger issues, develop characters, and provide a foil for our protagonists.
Time also plays an important role in this film. Told mostly over the space of one day, we see how Mannix runs his life like a finely-tuned watch. Anytime a clock or watch shows up, we’re reminded of just how dutiful he is and how much he can get done in an hour.
Bryan Young: But it never gets too serious, which is exemplified with Baird Whitlock’s final speech. It’s rousing, but descends to a laugh in the best ways. It’s laugh out loud funny, even when it’s giving you some very deep things to chew on.
But one wonders if this film is really a spiritual exploration for the Coen Brothers themselves. Revolving around the struggle of a man who could take an ordinary job and walk away from the lunacy of making films. Is this a pastiche of characters and situations they’ve known, exaggerated to the Nth degree? It makes one wonder: is the harder life of being an artist, doing the thing you love more “right” than doing something that’s easier and would pay better? The specter of great films from the past come out when pondering this question as well and one thinks of Mr. Bernstein’s proclamation in “Citizen Kane,” “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.”
For my money, I’ll take the harder, more fulfilling path, and I’m glad the Coen Brothers seem to have reached that same conclusion, and this film is the essay that explains their rationale.
Andy Wilson: Exactly. The final summation of their love sonnet to Hollywood and filmmaking is the inherent value of art -- and work! Sprinkled in among what seems to be throwaway dialogue between Whitlock’s kidnappers, or from a man from Lockheed who want to recruit Mannix to come work for them, are incredibly deep, philosophical arguments.
Told through a lens of faith and against the backdrop of Hollywood, this is a very silly movie about very deep underlying issues.
Beyond that, the performances in this film are phenomenal. We know the Coens are able to coax amazing performances out of Clooney, Brolin, and other regulars, and they deliver in spades. This is one of Clooney’s best performances in the last decade: those familiar with his work in other Coen works “Intolerable Cruelty” and “O Brother Where Art Thou” know that Coen-influenced Clooney is a different beast than almost anything else.
Brolin carries this film effortlessly, and provides its narrative and moral center. But perhaps the best are the smaller roles, such as Tilda Swinton as dueling twin gossip columnists, or an exasperated Ralph Fiennes as a classically trained director trying to coax a decent performance out of good-natured-cowboy-turned-up-and-coming-movie-superstar Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, who may also be the breakout star and most surprising performance in this star-studded cast)
Bryan Young: And don’t forget that it reunites both the Kurgan and the Highlander!
Andy Wilson: Exactly! It’s little things like that, or a well-used tiny dose of Fisher Stevens, Wayne Knight or Robert Picardo. Or Michael Gambon as the narrator! Most people won’t notice or care, but for some, it’s like bits of catnip that help you feel like you’re in on a very inside joke.
Bryan Young: Agreed. Picardo had me wheezing with laughter. While I don’t think this is the best Coen Brothers film, it’s certainly worthy of their oeuvre. It’s definitely something I’ll be interested in watching and watching again for the laughs, but I’ll be watching it again to see just how they pulled it off. But I have to say, there are going to be those who don’t like it, those who try to take the meaning of the film and the dense tapestry of homage it weaves just on the surface. Your mileage, I think, will vary, based on how much you love film as a whole through the eras, rather than solely modern fare. When I originally wrote this review, it was the day after the screening and decided to give it an 8 out of 10, but now, after an extra day to chew on it and to really bask in what the film meant, it had much more resonance than I realized. So I’m a 9 out of 10.
Andy Wilson: It’s not their best, but it somehow feels like a pinnacle they’ve been building to-- from Barton Fink to The Big Lebowski. No one melds noir-ish drama plots with madcap comedy and witty dialogue like they do. I want this film on repeat in my home now. I missed a lot of the jokes because of audience laughter, and this demands repeat viewings. In fact, as soon as we finish this, I’m on my way back for another screening at the Alamo Drafthouse. I plan on taking my wife as soon as possible after that. I give this a solid 9 out of 10 and call this the first must-see movie of 2016.
PS-- Stay through the credits and read them for a hidden joke near the end.