There are two very different sides to the Coen Brothers’ body of work. One is the serious drama, the likes of “No Country for Old Men” or “Inside Llewyn Davis;” the other is the light-hearted farce, such as “Burn After Reading” or “Raising Arizona.” Their latest directorial effort, “Hail, Caesar!,” belongs in the latter category.
“Hail, Caesar!” is set in early 1950s Hollywood, when the studio system was still at its peak just prior to the television boom. It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (the sole character directly based on a real person and played by Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures who works hard to solve the problems of the studio’s stars. The film doesn’t have a straightforward plot; rather, it stitches together a series of little incidents that Mannix gets involved in. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the studios’ aquatic musical star, is pregnant but not married. Singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is getting an image change and is starring in a drama, but director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) just isn’t having it. And Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in Capitol Pictures’ biggest movie of the year, a Biblical epic titled “Hail, Caesar!,” has been kidnapped. On top of all that, Mannix is considering a job offer from Lockheed, one that promises normal working hours and higher pay.
The excellent cast includes many frequent Coen collaborators and as well as some surprises. Brolin makes the perfect straight man to the insanity surrounding him. Clooney is great as the overblown star. Johansson doesn’t have a lot to do, but it’s fun to see her spin on an Esther Williams-type character. Ehrenreich gets a lot of the best dialogue, particularly an exchange between him and Fiennes as Laurentz tries to get Hobie to deliver a serious line a certain way. France McDormand plays the studio’s film editor, Jonah Hill briefly appears as a man who specializes in “personhood” and regularly helps out the studio’s stars when they get in a jam, and Tilda Swinton has a duel role as rival columnist sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, who frequently bombard Mannix for scoops on his stars. But perhaps the biggest scene stealer is Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly-type song-and-dance man who perfectly taps his way through a number spoofing those old sailors-on-shore-leave musicals. But there’s more to his character than that—you just have to watch it and see.
Visually, “Hail, Caesar!” is great, with Technicolor-bright sets and costumes that evoke the time and place the film is portraying. The shots around the studio lot are especially well done, with the Coens’ frequently contrasting the imposing religious imagery of the “Hail, Caesar!” set—giant crosses, etc.—with the triviality of what is going on offset. The script is mostly solid; not all of the pieces come together, and some aspects of it will likely leave audiences scratching their heads. This is what I call “Coen Brothers Lite”—it’s a decent film, but perhaps a disappointing follow-up to the masterpiece that is “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
“Hail, Caesar!” is an odd little movie, even by Coen Brothers standards, and it might not be as accessible to those who aren’t familiar with the history of the Golden Age of Hollywood as portrayed in the film. But for those who are familiar, “Hail, Caesar!” is a neat little parody with more hits than misses, that succeeds in doing what every good parody should: it criticizes its subject, while also expressing love for it. It acknowledges the studio system’s flaws, particularly its not fairly paying many writers and actors in comparison to the amount of money their films made, but also expresses wonderment at the intricacies of the studio system—something that Hollywood will never see the likes of again.
Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
“Hail, Caesar!” is now streaming on Netflix.