It’s only the first week of February and it looks like we’re already getting a nice, early 2016 treat with a new film by the Coen Brothers, which is basically an event for most film-goers (poor box-office notwithstanding). That new film is called Hail, Caesar! It stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix. Eddie works as a “fixer” for Capitol Pictures, working around the clock to make sure that everything with the studio’s productions are in check, the actors are in line and scandals are kept out of the press. It’s not an easy job by any means, but he is good at it and he is committed. The film’s plot is a standard day-in-the-life style narrative with Eddie dealing with problems with various actors, directors, editors in vignettes that are very loosely tied together with an overarching thread involving the Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the prestige picture, ‘Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” who is kidnapped and being held for ransom by a strange group of individuals who call themselves, “the Future.”
While I normally don’t want to do this, I want to very quickly address something. I only just noticed a trend that whenever the Coen Brothers make a film that is relatively more lighthearted in tone, more broadly comedic, it is not going to get the same amount of acclaim their heavier, dramatic work will (the one real exception being Raising Arizona). Remember, even The Big Lebowski wasn’t very well received when it first came out. Often you’ll read that the comedic films are “disappointingly lightweight” or “well-made, but a minor offering,” something along those lines. I’m not sure if this is simply a genre bias (i.e. “this movie is serious, that must mean it’s really deep,” “this is a comedy, so it’s just supposed to be fun”) or what, but considering how notoriously meticulous and deliberate the Coen Brothers are in their craft, it’s frustrating to see people miss or simply ignore the layers and subtext that can be found in their supposedly “lighter” films. Hail, Caesar! is no different in this regard.
Similarly to many of their films, Hail, Caesar! centers around a character finding meaning and value in the midst of their chaotic life, usually within an institution/system that they are fighting or trying desperately to make sense out of. Reflecting on the breakneck paced craziness of the narrative’s disjointed nature, it is another story of a character’s existential nightmare…except this time, it is presented as a farce. Eddie Mannix is that character for this film, forcing himself to fix the problems of idiots and egomaniacs around him simply because he needs to keep the status quo in check. He finds himself consumed with guilt because of this, visiting the confessional everyday, usually just to list his smoking habit and his time away from his family as sins. It’s about how he has to convince himself to buy into the idea of the film industry, as messed up as it is, being that something bigger than himself that he puts his faith into, that he finds genuine spiritual value in, only to have that value simply benefit the corporate end of the industry as opposed to the artistic. This also carries over in the films critical eye toward the blind following of any one system, be it the studio system, religion or even economic philosophy.
The film explores a lot of big ideas in ways that are subtle and not-so-subtle, but it’s only one part of what makes the movie so great. Even without all the subtext, the film is an absolute blast to watch unfold. Playing out like a film geek’s wet dream, practically all the major character is some riff on a real life person. Eddie Mannix being an exception since he is loosely based on a real fixer with the same name who worked for MGM back in the day. Meanwhile, you have George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock being the shortbus edition of Kirk Douglas, Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran being a sleazy riff on the aquamusical queen, Esther Williams, Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle being a combo of Kirby Grant Jr. and Gene Autry, and even Channing Tatum showing as Burt Gurney, the film’s version of Gene Kelly. There are tons of little nods and references to classic films and even a couple to other Coen Brothers’ movies. So many details and nuances are packed in the 106 minute runtime that it would be impossible to absorb everything that the movie has to offer in the first viewing, you know, like every other movie by the Coens.
Of course another fun aspect of the film is the sheer amount of stars packed in each frame. So many people are in this movie that I can’t name all of them, but what makes it so good is that each person feels unique, each with their own quirk or that little something that makes a huge impression on you. It helps that the cast is so great who are able to get a lot of mileage from the material leading to countless sequences that had me literally tearing up from how hard I laughed. Even if the film wasn’t as smartly constructed as it was, it would succeed as a pure comedy. Then of course you have the stellar Roger Deakins at work behind the camera, Carter Burwell delivering a lush and vibrant score, and jawdroppingly beautiful production/costume design filled with great period-accurate detail.
I do get why some people might not get into Hail, Caesar! The sense of humor is at a wavelength that is purely Coen Brothers, and it probably won’t work for someone not aware of what it is that they are doing, especially given the emphasis that the film puts on creating a rambling and incoherent atmosphere (although to be frank, I honestly found the basic plot to be easily followable, despite the multiple threads that it conjures, it’s no Inherent Vice in that regard). Even I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen a film from them before. However, to anyone who loves the Coen Brothers, anyone who loves film and filmmaking in general would find a lot to love and enjoy out of the film. It’s a smart, thoughtful and an amazingly funny film with a lot of darker undercurrents and subtext that will provide more than enough food for thought on multiple viewings, that is if you’re willing to put in the effort to look for it. 90 / 100