Hail Caesar! sees the Coen Brothers return nearly three years after their last directorial work, in what is probably one of their most distinct – and undefined – works.
Characterized by their manipulation of both dramatic and comedic elements, the Coen Brothers produce their most comical efforts yet – the tale of a single day in the early fifties cinema industry. To define the plot any other way would not do the movie justice. The main story follows the kidnap of movie star Baird Whittlock, (Clooney) and the attempts of movie executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to get him back. Mannix, true to his real life inspiration, acts as a ‘fixer’, keeping the private lives of several movie stars away from the public eye – leading to a number of subplot. As a result, the story does not feel cohesive, which is perhaps the film’s biggest misfortune.
However, it excels in most other aspects. An example of auteur filmmaking at its finest, Hail Caesar! is truly a unique piece of art, even in the outstanding and diverse filmography of the Coen Brothers – an electrifying love letter to classical Hollywood at its best. Aesthetically, Hail, Caesar! is reminiscent of The Big Lebowski and, also similar to Lebowski, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a specific genre. The film is hilarious, but not a traditional comedy. Occasionally cringe-worthy and sometimes natural, Hail, Caesar! nevertheless presents a strong moral message, while also not taking itself too seriously. The tone is all over the place, yet thematically it is very much focused on the spirituality and value of cinema.
However, as confused as the movie can be, the directorial hand behind it is entirely evident. The photography is striking and certain set pieces are extremely well coordinated (including a wonderfully choreographed dance scene). Every actor gives striking performances, so much that you wish many of them had larger parts. But as chaotic as it can get, the directors maintain a strong focus on Mannix and his character’s journey: viewing cinema, not necessarily as an art, but as a form of escapism – something larger than life. This brings us to yet another conscientious contradiction of the film. As simple as it appears on the surface, the movie has prominent philosophical undertones. Perhaps the most striking of these is humanity’s search for purpose, which Mannix finds in cinema, and other characters find in different ideologies. As convoluted or unnecessary as the plot may get, the overall theme helps to keep it very centered.
Finally, in what regards to humor, this is very particular and very hard to describe. However, if you typically enjoy the humor of the Coen Brothers, it is safe to assume this movie will cater to your tastes. It’s not above slapstick, but feels very natural in the film’s ethos. A notable mention also goes to Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney, a Gene-Kelly-esque actor, whose role in the movie could not be described without spoiling the plot. Regardless, his is without a doubt the most hypnotic and hilarious performance in the film, yet sadly his role is quite minimal. All of this, of course, does not detract from the outstanding performances of Brolin, Clooney and Scarlett Johansson, who all do a tremendous job.
The writing is not the film’s strongest aspect. Like the plot, it feels inconsistent at times. However, those moments when the dialogue does shine through are breathtaking, particularly a monologue by Brolin near the end of the movie about the worth of the cinema industry. At times the writing is quirky or eccentric, which may put off viewers who were expecting a more grounded film. Personally, I chose to see it as an element that adds to the unique type of humor embraced by the Coens. Indeed, there is a large amount of silliness in this film which isn’t clearly addressed in the trailer, but feels consistent with the overall tone.
A walking contradiction, what Hail Caesar! lacks in cohesion it makes up for in humor, and a unique authorial intent.
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Images sourced from ‘Hail, Caesar!’, Universal Pictures.