Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
When the Coen Brothers released The Big Lebowski, there was much speculation on whether or not the film contained a political commentary. With Hail, Caesar!, there will be no speculation – because this movie is unmistakably the Coen Brothers’ way of remarking on Hollywood, by exploring the industry at a time when it was run by the studio system. In theory, this is a lovely concept – but the Coen Brothers don’t completely pull it off, failing to realize that not everyone knows about the studio system in place at this time in history. When it comes down to it, Hail Caesar! is a movie made for film aficionados, and thus the film can only be completely appreciated by this narrow demographic.
From the 1920s to somewhere in the 1950s, film studios would produce movies using actors, directors, and other talents who were under contractual obligation. Hail, Caesar! is centered around Eddie Mannix (Brolin), an important mediator (aka problem-solver) for Capitol Studios. When Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of Capitol’s major production of the year, is kidnapped, Eddie must cover up the scandal at all costs.
The Coen Brothers have done a lot of things right with this film – including some of the well-constructed jokes, the symbolism, and the sense of spectacle. The movie’s humor is well-tempered rather than raunchy, with jokes that are built up carefully over the respective scenes. These gags all hold a sense of refinement and tastefulness, and this makes Ralph Fiennes at home. Helping with these jokes are supporting characters like Western singing-star Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), who’s also in the mix as a representative of one of the negative aspects of 1950’s film (but who’s one of the best things about this particular picture). The cast of Hail, Caesar! has the difficult task of capturing the essences of some iconic golden age actors – Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, and Carmen Miranda. While the cast members do a respectable job in these parts, the real reason they maintain the sense of authenticity that they do is largely due to the inclusion of fantastic references – Hobie goes on a date with Carlotta Valdez (whose name is taken from Vertigo), the movie being produced by Capitol Studios is Ben-Hur in a threadbare disguise, Burt Gurney (Tatum) prances around in dance scene nodding at Anchors Aweigh, and that’s only to name a few. The Coen Brothers truly shove the audience into the period.
The trailers for Hail, Caesar have tried to sell the film as an inside look at Hollywood back in the day – these promises have made audiences eagers to get close and personal with these blatantly advertised characters. But we don’t. The only character the audience is allowed closeness too is Mannix, who is very fascinating, but doesn’t give viewers everything they want. On one hand, this feels like a drawback, but since this is the Coen Brothers, the move feels very deliberate. Even Baird Whitlock, who we see a lot of (for a star that has been kidnapped at least), feels distant – because he and all of the other actors in the film have no depth. Of course, this could be a statement from the Coens regarding the general attitude of actors, but it does make us want more – and it’s a wish that’s left unsatisfied.
While this film may not be fully appreciated by a general audience, its appeal to film fans is massive, and the picture looks stunning to boot. Of course in true Coen Brothers’ fashion, every part of the film is provident, from the vague celebrities it depicts, to the frequently shown clock face motif. Most importantly, the brothers’ messages get across, and without giving spoilers I can only share one with you: Although it’s no longer 1950 and the studio system is no longer in use, Hollywood essentially still functions the same (messed up) way.