Following the mid-to-late January movie wasteland when Academy Awards contenders have made their theatrical runs and studios generally dump projects meant to be ignored or forgotten, Hail, Caesar! arrives to provide some quality and fun.
Judging from the trailers, the Coen brothers’ 17th film was also going to be a lighter effort, a wacky palate cleanser following recent somber and serious fare such as Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit and A Serious Man. (Even Burn After Reading took some dark turns, despite its many goofy characters.)
Knowing that this was intended to be a fun project appears to have attracted an all-star cast, starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum. Everyone here is clearly having a blast recreating the days of old Hollywood when the studios controlled everything about a star’s image and produced crowd-pleasing spectacles such as epic period pieces, Westerns, and musicals.
Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the head of production at Capitol Pictures (which longtime fans of the Coen brothers may also recognized as the studio from Barton Fink), whose job is to constantly put out fires, cater to high-maintenance actors, and generally keep the entire ship on course. Mannix is aware of every development on every picture (to use the pretentious term typically given to movies, as Jerry Seinfeld and Will Ferrell recently pointed out), and often has to resort to unsavory means to cater to his talent and make sure everything stays on schedule.
This compels him to go to daily confessional, though even his priest thinks his sins are overstated. Does this mean Mannix is unhappy or believes he’s on the wrong path? Perhaps he feels he’s seeking forgiveness for the sins of all the Capitol Pictures’ stars and filmmakers, though that’s probably reading far more deeply into this than the Coen brothers intended. Yet Mannix also gives the impression that there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing, even when a lucrative opportunity presents itself. Brolin is the spine of the story and capably carries the film.
Ultimately, Hail, Caesar! feels like a tribute to 1950s Hollywood and the studio system under which films and stars were created. Would the Coen brothers have succeeded and thrived in such an environment? Well, maybe not. Perhaps that’s why this movie is largely a spoof of the actors, movies, and style of the period. No one is who they appear to be on screen and to the general public. Only studio heads (or “fixers”) like Mannix know the truth and work tirelessly to manage the iconic facades carefully constructed by the Hollywood machine.
Matinee idols like Clooney’s Baird Whitlock are doofuses in real life, incapable of maintaining their careers without being led by the hand. Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran might be all smiles, delight and perfect aquatic choreography on screen, but after the director yells “Cut!” she’s an acerbic diva. (Oh, and if an actress dares to have a child out of wedlock, arrangements are made to make sure it appears she’s properly married.) Rising talents are matched up to keep up glamorous appearances and the gossip columns churning. Actors can’t be stars if no one is talking about them.
But the real secret in Hollywood is something not even Mannix nor the gossip press are aware of, which is the basis of the scheme to kidnap Whitlock for ransom. For the sake of spoilers, we won’t reveal who or what is behind the movie star’s abduction. But if you consider the time period, it probably won’t be a surprise. (Hail, Caesar! could be a quirky companion in a double feature with Trumbo.) Yet as you might expect from a Coen brothers film, the truth is played for easy and curious laughs. The people behind Whitlock’s kidnapping seemingly belong in no other world than one created by Joel and Ethan Coen.
It’s too bad that Clooney often resorts to acting in comedies purely with his face, as if an absurd expression is the only way he can convey humor. He’s probably the right actor to play Whitlock, as one of our true current movie stars, but never quite seems dim or funny enough for the role. Johansson is perfect because she could be a 1950s bombshell. The most pleasant surprise is Tatum, who gets to show off his skills as a Gene Kelly-like song-and-dance man, but he also shows a graceful flair for the overdramatic which really makes his performance shine. (One of these days, I will stop underestimating Tatum and truly appreciate how good of an actor he’s become.)
But the unexpected delight of Hail, Caesar! comes from Alden Ehrenreich, who steals the film as Hobie Doyle, the lassoing, stunt-riding star of Capitol Pictures’ Westerns, whom studio executives want to turn into a more refined leading man with broad mainstream appeal. Doyle is far more comfortable in a cowboy hat riding horses than in a tuxedo at a high society function. And his thick Southern accent is no match for the snappy dialogue required of him (as seen in the second trailer posted above). In his cowboy films, Doyle simply didn’t have to say much. The initial results are disastrous, much to the dismay of celebrated director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), which makes for the most hilarious scene in the movie.
Is this the Coen brothers’ best film? No, but I doubt they intended for this to be that sort of effort. Hail, Caesar! is meant to be fun, a nod to a time and type of product they clearly admire, while also poking fun at it. It’s a farce, a cleaning of the creative pipes, reminding us of how funny they can be without mixing comedy with bittersweet tragedy. It also feels like the perfect film to get us back into movies for the year to come.