Review: ‘Hail, Caesar’ is the Coen Brothers’ Love Letter to Old Hollywood

By February 3, 2016
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I never quite know what to expect when I walk into a new film from Joel and Ethan Coen. They are perhaps Hollywood’s greatest magicians (and have been for some time) with their ability to present audiences with impeccably made movies that not only challenge our typical structural expectations, but also challenge us to understand them. It is because of this that each of their movies demand revisiting, which I have dutifully done with practically all of them,  and I’m still not entirely sure I understand every underlying meaning and event in Inside Llewyn Davis or A Serious Man. Although the filmmakers themselves would probably continue to tell me that there isn’t any.

But I’ve also run into a problem with their films sometimes and the constantly sarcastic, ironic tone that they seem to bring to almost all of their projects because I never quite know if I’m supposed to take what they’re giving me seriously. Maybe that’s what has made so many love their work so much, and what has made the filmmaking duo laugh even more about it all. Walking into their newest film though, Hail, Caesar!, I was expecting something fresh and exciting, and considering its old Hollywood settings, I was expecting something totally made for me.

The film is set during 1950s Hollywood, when communism is a considerable presence in the Hollywood scene, and the validity of both movie stars and the films they’re in is beginning to be called into question.  At the head of it all though is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer tasked with solving the problems of his studio, Capitol Pictures. When one of the studio’s biggest movie stars, Baird Whitlock  (George Clooney), is kidnapped while filming the newest biblical epic, Hail, Caesar! though, Eddie must try and bring him back before more people find out, while also solving the problems of other movie stars on the lot. These include a brash and somewhat negotiable DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a Western movie star trying to change his image in Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the posh director trying to mold Doyle to fit his film (Ralph Fiennes), and more.

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In a lot of ways, Hail, Caesar! feels like an excuse for the Coen Brothers to make a movie with homages to every classic genre you could imagine, from the old John Wayne style Westerns, high-browed costume dramas, toe-tapping musicals, or even Roman epics. If the film’s plot and characters had been weak too, then that’s all Hail, Caesar! might have amounted to being. Instead, this is one of the Coens’ most fun, dynamic, and hilarious outings yet. That doesn’t mean they don’t have fun or take advantage of the opportunities their old Hollywood setting presents though, by opting to introduce a number of their characters through movie scenes rather than proper introductions, and each homage just feels even better than the last, including a lovably ridiculous Fred Astaire-esque set piece with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney.

In terms of standout performances, the Coens’ get the best acting from each of their cast members, but Alden Ehrenreich manages to break out from the pact, with his Southern charm and complete lack of irony about himself – you kind of just want to hang out with him all the time, even if he might try and throw a spaghetti lasso around you at the dinner table. I would pay very good money to see hours worth of his and Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz interacting amongst each other, with one scene in specific being possibly one of the Coens’ funniest comedic scenes of all time.

None of the studio antics would mean anything though if not for Josh Brolin’s Mannix, who has spent enough time around movie sets, that you get the feeling he sees his life as a movie sometimes, with a narrator and all. Seeking forgiveness for all of his lies and sins, some very big and some very small, the Coen Brothers’ take a wise route in deciding to just show how studios operated back in the 1950s, without ever casting judgement down upon them or the characters. Seeing how they controlled their stars’ private lives and covered up crime stories is a nice reminder of how far the industry has come since then though, and also how far they haven’t come. Although, all the references to movies like Vertigo and stars like Clark Gable do make it feel like Hail, Caesar! is very much an “inside baseball” kind of movie, made for film buffs, to be analyzed by film buffs .

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Much like Mannix himself, the film’s plot never stops to slow down or take a breath, bouncing from one character’s storyline to another, dealing with themes of religion, faith, politics, and morality all while being a candy-coated, beautifully shot film on its surface. The way Mannix continues to solve each of his stars’ problems, while simultaneously pushing off his own, allows the film to move at a mile a minute without ever losing track of itself. In one of the best scenes of the film as well, Mannix converses with a small group of priests and rabbis to try and figure out if Hail, Caesar! accurately depicts the will of God. As he tries to get each of the conflicting members to agree, you get the sense that Mannix himself wants to believe in the power of movies more than anyone else. It’s even more frustrating when a majority of the voices just shrug it off as “For a movie, it’s pretty good.”

Much like their previous effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, the film follows a main character looking for some kind of confirmation that what he’s doing is what he should be doing. Unlike Oscar Isaac’s folk singer though, who waded through inches of snow without a jacket only to face more rejection, Eddie Mannix is very good at what he does, and everyone around him recognizes that. His struggle is much more internal than anything else. Plus, there’s a lot more comedy on the studio lots of Los Angeles than there is in Greenwich Village for a struggling musician.

Throughout the entirety of Hail, Caesar!, I thought that the Coen Brothers managed to both condemn and fall in love with movies. It is repeated often throughout the film that movies are meaningless, that they are not worth much compared to other industries or events of real consequence. But much like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, I have not ever quite believed that. Sure, they are meant for entertainment purposes and there’s a whole lot of controversy hiding behind-the-scenes, but watching movies just feels right, and when that happens, it’s hard not to love them. So I guess it’s fitting to say then that Hail, Caesar! just feels right.

Hail, Caesar is set to hit theatres on February 5th.

Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable