Our Online Entertainment Editor goes back to the past in his review of Hail, Caesar! Is the Coen Brothers’ latest effort a film worthy of its heritage?
The Coen Brothers have made an entire career dealing with the absurd in dark tones. Even their more light hearted films are tinged with themes of existentialism and finding meaning. With Hail, Caesar! The brothers Coen takes these themes and supercharges them to deal with meaning in a craft they have long since become certifiable experts in. Much like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, Hail, Caesar! also relies on a kidnapping to drive its premise and challenge its players to find meaning in the only thing they know – Hollywood, much like the directorial duo themselves.
Hail, Caesar! tells the story of the fictional Capitol Studios in the early 50’s and its Fixer, Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), in his attempt to find his place in the seemingly superfluous movie industry where he is little more than a glorified babysitter for its actors. When one of the studio’s biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney) is kidnapped by a mysterious group known as ‘The Future’ during the filming of the religious epic, Hail, Caesar: A tale of the Christ, Mannix must use his set of skills to track down the star before word breaks out.
In true Coen Brothers fashion, Hail, Caesar! is a movie of contradictions that’s themes revolve around (quite surprisingly) Communism and religion. Whole passages of the film are used to address and question those areas’ finer points. Hail,Caesar! (the movie in the movie, not the film itself) treads carefully around the issues of the depictions of the messiah and the film treats this as a vessel for its message in that regard. Often Hail, Caesar! asks, Is Jesus Christ really the son of god, a Nazarene… or just a non-featured extra? It’s a sentiment that’s beautifully realised in one of the film’s placeholder cards ‘Divine Presence to be shot’.
Communism itself comes off as contradictory as money is the driving proponent for the movement’s success when it robs Capitol Studios. Capitol Studios is not just a nod to studios of the past, it represents the capitalist establishment and the American Dream… and this is where Hail, Caesar! starts to lose focus.
In their attempt to argue for the necessity of film, the discussion shifts away from the art itself and onto the theological and ideological implications that supposedly define it. Interestingly, however, what it does do is cast Whitlock as the unlikely advocate of film as propaganda and Mannix as the advocate for film as expression, roles which in other films would have been reversed.
Josh Brolin plays a great straight man as Eddie Mannix, showing the struggles of someone with the potential to do ‘meaningful’ work with his talents but at the cost of losing his agency to ‘create’. George Clooney also makes some strong hits in his role as Baird Whitlock – a hedonistic actor who’s barely grasping his place in the grander scheme – but he is under-utilised just enough that it detracts from his performance when he finally does have something important to say, when compared to the rest of the capable ensemble.
The exception to that is Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich) who is glorious as the Cowboy actor who coasted by on a series of roles that require little ‘acting’ further than a throw of the lasso and a whistle. When he is forced to play a serious role in a period drama by director Laurence Laurentz (played by Ralph Fiennes), his true acting ability comes to surface. His role is a large driver of much of Hail Caesar’s comedy and holds up well compared to other heavy hitters such as Scarlett Johannson and Channing Tatum.
In its contradictions, Coen brothers set out to make what is unnecessary necessary. It’s equal parts both and it’s hard to think that this wasn’t otherwise the point. All the effort that goes into movie making is seen here and setting it in a time when film didn’t know where it was going accentuated the argument for film’s necessity. It’s hard to imagine this film any other way. Hail, Caesar! is a worthy contribution to the Coen Brothers’ growing filmography and might be its clearest in finding a message, even if the film itself doesn’t appear to know or appreciate that.
Film: Hail, Caesar!
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes
Studio: Working Title
Distributor: Universal Pictures