I did see Hail, Caesar! all the way back in February, but didn’t get around to reviewing it then. Ten months might be a hell of a long time to spend considering a film, but while I did love the film back in February I enjoyed it even more this time around. Not only did I feel like I got a little bit more of what the film was going for, but it was incredibly enjoyable to laugh at the jokes all over again.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures, and spends his incredibly long days fixing all the problems of the various films the studio is producing. Actresses taking salacious photos, getting pregnant out of wedlock, and finding a leading man for a picture that doesn’t have one are just some of the things that Mannix has to deal with on a daily basis. Most importantly though, Mannix needs to find his missing star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who, as an ominous ransom note reveals, has been kidnapped by “The Future.”
As with many Coen films, the specific story seems to matter a bit less than whatever setting and style the Coens have decided to dip the film into. Here, the Coens dive into old Hollywood, and all of the varied styles that come along with it. One of the main joys of the film is seeing all the various productions being filmed in Capitol’s studios, which range from an Ester Williams-style water ballet, a Ben-Hur-esque sword and sandals pic, a Gene Kelly-type sailor musical, a John Ford-like western, to a highfalutin drama. It’s fun for anybody who enjoys classic Hollywood to try and find the analogs between what the Coens present here and studio pictures of the era.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a story or an emotional pull, or quite a lot of humor. As the film has been simmering in my consciousness and as I’ve read pieces on it, it’s easier to see the story of Eddie Mannix as sort of a film industry Christ figure, taking on the sins of the studio and its employees and sacrificing his life so they can be fixed. Throughout the film a man from Lockheed continues to temp him with a cushy job in the defense industry, less hours for more money, yet Mannix stays in the picture business despite its perceived frivolity and its toll on Mannix’s family life.
I also really love how the film weaves in and out through fantasy and reality. It seems to argue filmmaking as an enterprise that loosens one’s grip on reality, though that might not be such a bad thing. There are several times in the film where we think something’s really happening, only to have the camera pull out and we see that it’s part of a film or taking place on a set. And there’s at least one scene (submarine) that is complete staged and shot like it is part of an old movie, and because of who’s involved we at first think that’s what it is.
Though Mannix and his struggles to fix problems and decide whether or not to move to Lockheed anchor the film, the Coens give us a vast tapestry of colorful Hollywood characters to get invested in. Chief among these is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an actor in the western who is suddenly transferred into the drama under the direction of Laurence Laurenz (Ralph Fiennes). This is probably the most hilarious subplot in a sea of hilarious subplots, as Laurenz tries in vein to transform Hobie’s cowboy accent into a posh one. Later, Hobie proves invaluable to Mannix in tracking down Whitlock and also a lot smarter than he looks.
I do very much enjoy the humor of this movie, and that’s the main reason why I love the film so much. It just seems to earnestly committed to the idea of old Hollywood that everyone goes a bit over the top with it. That’s true of everything from the direction to the performances to the shots themselves. There are a few imperfections of the camera movements that not only put you right at home in the era the film is depicting, but also create a bit of humor (see the water ballet number). And this review would be complete without a praise Roger Deakins’ cinematography, with the highly saturated color putting the viewer right at home in this uber-classical Hollywood environment.
I feel like Hail, Caesar! is going to be overlooked at this time of year, which is a real shame. Even though it came out in February, I think it’s one of the best movies of 2016. It might not be the deepest film out there, but it’s as expertly crafted and as much fun and engaging as any film of the past year. Maybe it’s just because I’m a bit more familiar with the Coen brothers’ humor at this point, or because I love old Hollywood so much, but I still think the Coens hit a home run with this one.
“Would that it were so simple.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: