Hail, Caesar!, the new movie from film geek heroes the Coen Brothers, is an agreeable enough lark that plays like a “by the numbers” version of the Coens’ usual fare of noir tropes, mistaken identities, feeble characters and snappy dialogue. They put their Big Lebowski stamp on the Golden Age of Hollywood, using the beloved and mythologized setting to present a wacky kidnapping caper, in which big movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped off the set of a Roman prestige picture by a mysterious organization known only as “The Future,” and studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) assembles an Avengers-esque team of eccentric Tinseltown types to mount a kooky rescue, featuring cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), Esther Williams-esque starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and Gene Kelly-inspired Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). The motley crew scamper throughout Hollywood causing all kinds of mischief, a major (but ultimately pointless) conspiracy is revealed, and there are enough funny accents and wacky dream sequences to please both Fargo and Lebowski fans. Fairly usual stuff from the Coens, but after all, they gave us enough masterpieces, why not another throwaway like Intolerable Cruelty and their Ladykillers remake? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, after all.
The proceeding was a review of the TRAILER for Hail, Caesar! What follows is a review of the actual film.
How do you sell a movie like the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!? Apparently, you edit a trailer that seems to be “on brand” for the critical darlings, and hope the brand name and star power bring people in. It worked; film websites salivated over the footage, and many expected a broad, wacky comedy. But instead of a Burn After Reading victory lap (making a goofy comedy after their masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis just as they did after the Oscar victory of No Country For Old Men) the Coens have made another art film in the guise of a comedy, more in line with A Serious Man than The Big Lebowski. Just as that film dealt with questions of faith in everyday, mundane life, so does Hail, Caesar!. Only this time, the faith is on the screen, literally and figuratively.
The goofy premise I described above as seemingly dictated by the film’s trailer is partially right: Baird Whitlock is kidnapped off the set of the titular film-within-a-film by a mysterious cabal, and studio fixer Mannix has to figure out how to get him back in time to save face for the studio and finish the picture that so much is riding on. This is by and large the extent of what passes for the plot in the film, as the stakes are deliberately kept low in order to explore just what the era, indeed just what movies themselves, mean to the Coens and to us the audience.
Many questions of faith are raised in the film in various ways. Sometimes literally, as Mannix makes his once daily appointments at confessional, revealing his (however trivial) innermost worries. Sometimes philosophically, as Mannix has a script meeting with various heads of religious organizations, making sure the depiction of the divine in the sword-and-sandal epic meets their approval, a meeting which quickly devolves into theological debate. Sometimes politically, as Baird Whitlock discovers his captors are Communist screenwriters, and they lively debate and explain how their cause stands up for “the little guy.” In each case, however, the conversation truly revolves around, and comes out in support of, motion pictures. There’s only one true religion in Hollywood, the Coens seem to be saying, and perhaps that extends to the rest of our culture as well.
At the same time, the Coens are also presenting a satiric biopic of sorts. Eddie Mannix is the real name of a real Hollywood studio fixer, having worked for MGM during its heyday, and Josh Brolin’s Mannix is meant to be his avatar, however loosely based. Subplots involving Hobie Doyle’s public image change and DeeAnna Moran’s secret pregnancy and adoption cover story are based on real stories and scandals from the era, providing a bouillabaisse of reality to the proceedings. The film may tonally delve between comedy and dramedy, but is kept grounded in reality (however loosely based) in order to portray just how involved the dogma of filmmaking was and still is.
Unlike previous Coen films, there are no dream sequences or surreal flights of fancy, with one major exception: the movies-within-the-movie being shot on the studio lots. Each movie that a character is connected to is shown, allowing the Coens to dip their toes into a large variety of genres while furthering the idea that movies are dreams that are shared experiences, a universal secular religion. Watching the film is a surreal experience in itself, resulting in some trance-inducing scenes such as a standout sequence involving Hobie trying to memorize a line given by Ralph Fiennes’ mannered director. Channing Tatum shines in a literally show-stopping musical number that pokes fun at the homoeroticism of classic musicals such as Anchors Aweigh. Coens company member Frances McDormand has one scene playing the studio’s chief editor, one that seems about to spin the story into another movie altogether. Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins shoots each film-within-a-film lovingly, and keeps the film as a whole lively with variety.
Even though the film is more grounded than not, that’s not to say there’s a lack of wackiness on the fringes. I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton’s Hedda Hopper-esque character(s), or the fact that not one but both leads of classic 80s cheesefest “Highlander” show up for cameo roles. The Coens brand of comedy is unique only to themselves, resulting in a film that understandably is hard to sum up, let alone sell to a paying audience. But as Hail, Caesar! shows, the language of movies is one spoken by just about everybody, and though we may debate tooth and nail about what they mean, what’s good and bad, and so forth, their very existence means something to so many people.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Feb. 6th, 2016.