By: Daniel Reynolds
When Joel and Ethan Coen‘s latest film, Hail, Caesar!, was announced with a February release date, I remember thinking it was not a good sign. Films released in a given year’s early months are rarely of high quality. This is Hollywood fact. But why do I automatically think that? Because the movie industry made me believe that. Leave it to the power of film to alter my perception of an entire chunk of the year.
Hail, Caesar! begins as all (some? a few?) of the greatest films do: with overt religious imagery. The stakes are established. This is a matter of high importance, of life and death, of the meaning of existence. It’s the 1950s in Hollywood and Eddie Mannix (a very game Josh Brolin) is a studio fixer for Capital Pictures. His job is to spend all day making sure the productions stay on schedule, on budget and, ideally, out of the gossip rags. This is no easy feat considering the cast of characters his line of work brings him into contact with. There’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), mermaid actress extraordinaire, who’s pregnant and unmarried. And Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), director of romantic dramas, who will not have his work disrupted. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is around to do a little song-and-dance. And where would the 50s studios be without horseback-riding, guitar strumming, fresh-faced stars like Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich)? At the top of this pyramid is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, having a ball), who’s in the middle of shooting one of those ornate biblical epics the studios used to love — before the genre started bankrupting them. It’s Whitlock’s kidnapping that starts the real intrigue going, but Hail, Caesar!, both the film we’re watching, and the production within the film, only feels halfway worried about that. It’s having too much fun to get worked up.
If you’re a student of the Coens work — and in this day and age, it’s hard not to be — there’s a clear division between their more muscular dramatic works and their comedies. All of their movies have some jokes in them (even No Country for Old Men, if you can recall), but their comedies take on a gleeful absurdist energy that you either enjoy or reject. Hail, Caesar!, like the fairly recent Burn After Reading or The Ladykillers, is no different. Led by the deep-timbered and drole voiceover of Michael Gambon, the film leaps lightly through the studio grounds — the offices, lots and lunch rooms that used to make up the Hollywood industrial complex. I say “used to” because now it feels like with the ease of shooting on location or internationally or small-scale, to say nothing of the democratization of film technology, things are much more decentralized. The magic, as it were, is no longer generated purely on those gated expanses of asphalt referred to as the studio lot. Hail, Caesar! is clearly an appreciation of this bygone era and moreover, it’s a toast to the weird power that film has been able to exert over the masses, despite the incursion of television (and now, the internet). While the Coens are often criticized for turning their noses up at their own characters, here we see even the most ridiculous characters — and situations — given some love. These guys believe in all of what they’re saying.
To that end, Hail, Caesar! makes time for digression. We get long takes of the Christ story threaded into Whitlock’s biblical epic, we get a display of horse and lasso talent from Doyle, we get a Navy dance number. All the old genres are here, presented with loving detail. There’s Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip writers who hate being called gossip writers) stamping around for a scoop — the kind that usually involves who’s dating who or who’s drying out where. Frances McDormand (yes, she’s in this too) has a memorable scene as an editor who probably shouldn’t wear scarves to work. There’s also time to steer the film into a Communist sub-plot, which, like the aforementioned Burn After Reading, has fun with the idea that no one involved in the political machinations of the time had a clear idea of what the hell was going on. Watching Clooney ham it up with this who’s who gang of character actors (Max Baker, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, et. al.) is worth the price of admission on its own. Here though, it’s just another piece to a delightful puzzle (there’s a sight gag in there about that, too).
The throughline to all of this is Brolin’s Mannix. He’s the problem-solver forced to go hither and yon tending to all of these maniacs. To watch Brolin joust with Swinton, or Fiennes, or Clooney, or, most memorably, a room full of clerics from different faiths (he really wants to get the religious details right!), is nothing if not pleasurable. Hail, Caesar! — the film we’re watching, not the production therein — begins to have the shape and feel of a production Mannix would be proud of. The Coens, in their exceptionalism, are the rare filmmakers who can corral this kind of talent for one-off scenes or silly sidebars. What they’ve made here, a film that is definitely less serious and significant than their best pictures (or even their last one, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is one of my all-time favs), is a salute to this lost era, but also an appreciation for the nature of film itself. None of the particulars of the plot really matter, and the whole thing is kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but what you feel is something different. Early in the film, when Mannix is presented with the choice of a new line of work in aviation, he’s told it’s more “serious.” He won’t have to spend his days running after actors on a bender or tending to productions in crisis. He’ll be able to spend time with his doting wife (hello, Alison Pill). A “Communist plot” in this setting would mean more than a handful of angry writers discussing dialectics in a living room somewhere overlooking the ocean. The hydrogen bomb may even be involved. But, on the other hand, there’s no magic there.
When you consider all of this, Hail, Caesar! is actually a good choice for a February movie. It’s not weighty enough to be released in the heart of award season, and it’s definitely not big enough — even with that cast — to be a summer smash. In truth, the film doesn’t add up to much beyond itself. But like everything about the Coens’ productions, it feels like the release date was very much done on purpose. Sure the film is larded with religious significance and its thesis involves having faith in the power of film. But it came out just a week before Valentine’s Day, the most frivolous of holidays. What better time to release a fluffy, cute missive to your one and true love, the movies?