May 2024

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

CAST: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand


Hail, Caesar!, a pseudo-docudrama/comedy going behind-the-scenes of a Hollywood film studio of the 1950s, feels self-indulgent, like its thin narrative exists as an excuse for obvious film buffs Joel and Ethan Coen to play in the 1950s “classic Hollywood” sandbox recreating the kinds of movies they grew up admiring.  To that end, it’s an enjoyable enough diversion, but among the Coen brothers’ filmography, it’s one of their more forgettable offerings.

We basically follow one hectic day in the 1950s in the life of stressed-out studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” at prestigious Capitol Pictures who runs himself ragged corralling the studio’s ensemble of movie stars and keeping their scandals out of the press.  Eddie is having a bad day.  Capitol’s latest “prestige picture” is a lavish Biblical epic titled Hail, Caesar!, headlined by one of their biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), but the production hits a snag when Whitlock is kidnapped by a cabal of Communist screenwriters who demand a ransom of $100,000.  And Eddie has various other problems to contend with.  America’s sweetheart DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is scandalously pregnant out of wedlock, forcing Eddie to concoct a cover story.  Esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is working on a Victorian period drama, but is chagrined when the studio shoves singing cowboy heartthrob Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into the movie, despite him being hopelessly miscast.  There’s other twists and turns involving ransom drops and arranged romances and actors defecting to Russia, and Eddie scrambles to put out fires while weighing an offer to leave show business behind and join Lockheed, and fending off a pair of identical twin rival gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton).

While enjoyable enough and mildly amusing, Hail, Caesar! feels somewhat half-baked.  One reason is that there’s not much of a “story”, and the flimsy skeleton that does exist—primarily Eddie trying to find Whitlock, sprinkled with his other smaller problems—exists mostly to string together a series of vignettes.  The other is that satire works best when it’s a razor-sharp, ruthless blade, and the Coen brothers hold back.  The Coens cover lots of bases when it comes to behind-the-scenes Hollywood shenanigans, but while their touch is expectedly tongue-in-cheek, it’s more with affection than true incision.  The Coens’ love of “classic” period film is in evidence, and they put a lot of effort into nailing the style of the movies they’re recreating.  Movie-within-a-movie excerpts from Hobie Doyle’s cornball Westerns, an elaborate synchronized swimming number, a slickly-choreographed (and cheerfully obliviously homoerotic) dance number with a bunch of singing sailors, and the portentous Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! would feel right at home as clips from actual ’50s movies (apart from including modern stars like George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Channing Tatum, of course).  Combined with lavish and meticulous period details, there’s a strong sense of verisimilitude.  The specific characters and films are fictional, but Hail, Caesar! at times has a docudrama “peeking behind the curtain” feel, and certainly little that happens is outside the realm of actual known Hollywood behind-the-scenes stories.  In fact, it’s fair to argue the movie might have been funnier and wittier if it had targeted Hollywood—a target ripe for the picking—with a more incisive blade.  The satire is restrained when one senses it could easily have gone bigger and zanier, and overall Hail, Caesar! ends up being more a loving, albeit tongue-in-cheek, homage poking gentle fun rather than a scathing mockery.

The overall effect is more mild amusement than outright hilarity, but there’s some comedic highlights, like George Clooney solemnly monologuing with Charlton Heston-esque pompousness until he blanks out on his next line, Eddie screening a Biblical epic for a mixed-religion audience that turns into a convoluted theological argument (later echoed by another scene in which the Communists devolve into infighting attempting to explain their ideology to a bewildered Whitlock), and a tortured coaching session between Laurentz and Hobie.  The Coens unsurprisingly have the occasional moment of visual flair, such as Eddie’s inner turmoil about his career choice coming to a head while gazing up at the three crosses on the set of Hail, Caesar!

It’s telling of the Coen brothers’ level of clout in Hollywood that they can assemble a star-studded ensemble cast for what in many cases are small roles.  Jonah Hill, for example, has only one scene, and Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Ralph Fiennes don’t have many.  Josh Brolin’s stressed but stoic Eddie Mannix (taking his name from a real-life Hollywood mogul but considerably softened from the real man) is the “straight man” around which the controlled chaos revolves.  His co-stars act varying degrees of goofy, but Brolin plays the stern Eddie 100% serious and straightforward, and is about the only character who’s allotted any substantial development.  George Clooney, a regular Coen brothers collaborator, seems to have become their go-to guy when it comes to playing handsome idiots (few actors can do befuddled expressions better) and the pretentiously-named “Baird Whitlock” is his latest rendition; Whitlock looks like a movie star, and he can pull it off enough of the time to get away with it, but behind-the-scenes he’s an airhead who can barely remember his lines.  Channing Tatum only has a handful of scenes, but his first and biggest—an elaborately choreographed musical number—proves he’s right at home as a song-and-dance man.  Scarlett Johansson dons the voice and attitude of a 1950s “saucy dame”.  Ralph Fiennes is amusingly deadpan.  Tilda Swinton, always a reliable source of quirkiness, does double duty as identical twins.  Insofar as any character sticks out as something approaching a whole person besides Eddie, it’s lesser-known Alden Ehrenreich, who’s endearingly dopey as the dim-bulb, earnest cowboy Hobie, who turns out to not be quite as dumb as he seems.  Ehrenreich doesn’t have a tremendous amount of screentime, but possesses enough “aw shucks” charm to make Hobie an appealing creation in his own right.  An eclectic batch of recognizable faces pop up in cameos and bit parts including Jonah Hill, Fisher Stevens, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Jack Huston, Wayne Knight, Dolph Lundgren, Christopher Lambert, Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Picardo, and an almost unrecognizable Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen).  Michael Gambon brings his portentous, ostentatious tones to the amusingly melodramatic narration.

A tongue-in-cheek but overall loving homage to 1950s “classic” film, Hail, Caesar! is more a niche film than a mainstream offering.  The greater one’s familiarity with and appreciation for 1950s films, the more one is likely to enjoy the proceedings.  For everyone else, it offers a star-studded cast gamely acting goofy, some one-liners and amusing moments, but not much of an actual “story” to tie it all together beyond a series of vignettes involving spot-on recreations of the various styles of films of Hollywood’s glory days.  If that appeals to you, you probably know who you are.

* * 1/2