A Hollywood studio fixer in the 1950s works endlessly to keep the studio’s stars in line.
The Coen Brothers basically make two types of film: dark, slow-burning and serious (No Country For Old Men, Blood Simple, Inside Llewyn Davis) or random, madcap and hilarious (The Big Lebowski, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo). Speaking in fairly black and white terms, of course (they manipulate and play with both formulas), but you can pretty much expect one of the two styles from whatever their latest offering happens to be. In this case, they’re very much falling into the latter.
Did you ever watch A Serious Man for the first time and just have no idea what any of it meant? If you’re anything like me, the answer is yes. It’s a great film, but honestly, who can tell me what that opening scene actually means? I’ve re-watched a bunch of times and I still can’t figure it out. In any case, while Hail, Caesar! isn’t quite so ambiguous, it did leave me while the same sense of perplexity. Are the Coens are actually trying to say something here, or is everything in the film as random as everything else just for the sake of being random? Perhaps the whole communist/political subplot is more allegorical than humorously eccentric, as it appears. With the Coens, film-makers who pretended Fargo was based on a true story just to mess with the audience, you never quite know.
Yet Hail, Caesar! works not because of its political savvy or hidden ambiguities, but because of its adoration for filmmaking. Plain and simple, this is the Coens Bothers’ warm love letter to cinema. It shows in moments like the Channing Tatum-led musical number, a Singin’ In The Rain-esque sequence complete with perfectly choreographed dancing (less salacious than Magic Mike) and an old-timey sense of fun, which is gloriously allowed to run the entire song (much like Inside Llewyn Davis’ – albeit more sombre – musical numbers). Even the brief cameo from Frances McDormand, who plays editor C. C. Calhoun, feels like the Coens pining over old filmmaking techniques; even the painstaking process of physically cutting movies together.
The performances from an impressive ensemble are strong, too. While most names you see on the poster don’t have more than a few minutes of screen time, everyone who pitches in does so in their own entertaining degree of peculiarity. Out of those who actually have more substantial roles (Clooney, Brolin) it’s Stoker’s Alden Ehrenreich, as rootin’ tootin’ western star Hobie Doyle, who steals every scene. All I know is I want to see the western where the hero handstands on his horse while shooting the bad guys.
Hail, Caesar! joyously hearkens to the Golden Age of cinema. The Coen Brothers are and always have been masterful filmmakers, and while this may not be their prestige picture, it somehow feels like one of their most personal.
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; Screenwriter: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill; Running time: 106 minutes; Certification: 12A