Film Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Hail Caesar
Courtesy of Universal

The Coen brothers deliver a gorgeously crafted romp through vintage Hollywood in this droll and ruminative entertainment.

If there’s such a thing as poker-faced exuberance, you can feel it in every loving, teasing frame of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!,” an inside-showbiz lark that regards the 1950s studio system with the utmost skepticism even as it becomes an expression of movie love at its purest. Starring Josh Brolin as a hard-working industry “fixer” tasked with keeping big-budget productions on track and wayward stars in line, this gorgeously crafted romp through the backlots and Malibu enclaves of Hollywood’s Golden Age tosses off plenty of eccentric comedy and musical razzle-dazzle before taking on richer, more ruminative dimensions, ultimately landing on the funny-sad question of whether life is but a dream factory. Although it boasts enough marquee names and splashy, crowdpleasing angles to deliver good returns for Universal, this is as strange and singular an offering as anything the Coens have ever done, and as such its more thoughtful, elusive undertones could stand in the way of broader public acceptance. It bows Feb. 5 Stateside, a week before premiering overseas as the Berlin Film Festival’s opening-night attraction.

The high-powered Hollywood fixer has been enjoying an on-screen mini-renaissance, on the evidence of Showtime’s Liev Schreiber-starring “Ray Donovan” and now the Coen brothers’ lavish throwback to an earlier era of industry damage control, as overseen here by the character of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fictionalized composite of the real-life studio VP Mannix and his head of publicity, Howard Strickling. The various scandals that Mannix and Strickling covered up during their decades working together at MGM could easily furnish several films of their own, but the Coens generally steer clear of salaciousness in favor of a jaundiced but affectionate character study, treating Brolin’s eternally put-upon Eddie as a beacon of relative sanity and intelligence in a world overrun by irrationality, venality and corruption.

Indeed, had the Coens not already made a film called “A Serious Man,” neither the title nor the theological baggage would have been misapplied to this version of Eddie, a hard-working Catholic family man first seen unburdening his soul to a priest, and not just because he’s sneaked a few cigarettes behind his wife’s back. It’s the ’50s, and as the designated fixer for Capitol Pictures (played here in a sly amalgam of the Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony lots, plus the courtyard of Los Angeles’ Union Station), Eddie is tasked with preserving the illusion of Hollywood glamour and propriety at a time of pervasive moral crackdown and sociopolitical upheaval, taking not-always-savory steps to ensure that production runs smoothly and top talents stay out of the headlines.

That can mean anything from smacking around an up-and-coming actress caught in an illicit photo shoot, to arranging for prized star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson, terrifically brassy if a bit underused) to secretly adopt her own out-of-wedlock child (a twist inspired directly by the real-life Mannix’s similar arrangement for Loretta Young). It also means enforcing the studio’s questionable decision to cast the handsome, dumb-as-a-stump cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, superb), an audience hit in a recent string of Westerns, in an elegant parlor drama called “Merrily We Dance” — to the quiet chagrin of the prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose patient attempts to steer the hopeless Hobie through a single line of dialogue provide the film with one of its most delicious scenes.

But Eddie’s stress load kicks up a notch with the sudden disappearance of Capitol’s top star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is abducted from the set of an expensive Roman epic called “Hail, Caesar!” — clearly modeled on “Ben-Hur,” right down to the “A Tale of the Christ” subtitle — which the studio was hoping to be its big year-end cash cow. And so it falls to the fixer to track down Baird and bring him back, all while cleverly avoiding the threats and insinuations of rival Hollywood gossip columnists and identical twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton in a succession of Hedda Hopper hats (the splendid work of costume designer Mary Zophres).

If nothing else, then, the Coen brothers have employed their gifts for satire and pastiche to concoct a vastly wittier, more knowing and entertaining evocation of HUAC-era Hollywood than the recent “Trumbo” — a connection driven home when Baird awakens in Malibu to find he’s been kidnapped by a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, who have joined the Communist Party to protest “the pure instrument of capitalism” that studios like Capitol (aha!) have become. Unsurprisingly, the Coens treat this self-righteous statement of principle as an opportunity for ridicule. Basically presented as a series of belligerent reaction shots, these socialist scribes (played by actors including Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz and Fred Melamed) may well pride themselves on sticking up “for the little guy,” but the film has no interest in exalting their politics, much less their benighted profession.

Instead it casts a casually withering stare at every corner and stratum of the industry, from the ego-driven auteurs and bed-hopping stars all the way down to the lowly extras who fill their frames and occasionally throw a major wrench into the gears. It’s no surprise, then, that Eddie is eyeing the exit — or he would be, if he had more than a minute to spare for the Lockheed headhunter (Ian Blackman) who’s trying to lure him away from the frivolity of Tinseltown and help prepare America for its looming nuclear catastrophe. But try as he might, Eddie would rather make movies, not war, and it’s this impulse that accounts for why “Hail, Caesar!,” despite its wickedly serrated edge, never tilts into cynicism or intolerable cruelty.

Their craft seemingly honed to an even sharper point of perfectionism and clarity than usual, the Coens delight in laying bare the nuts and bolts of the process, whether they’re steering us through the gloriously artificial sets used on Baird’s Roman epic (built and shot entirely in L.A., as was the custom of the times), or granting us a peek at the film reels running through the old-school Moviola operated by editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand, getting in a terrific gag in a one-scene role). But the most sublime moments in “Hail, Caesar!” occur when the behind-the-scenes machinery drops away, the films being produced become the film we’re watching, and we’re invited to lose ourselves in a state of vintage Hollywood rapture.

An early highlight finds Johansson’s DeeAnna donning a shiny green mermaid tail in preparation for a stunningly choreographed synchronized-swimming routine straight out of the 1952 Esther Williams tuner “Million Dollar Mermaid.” Even more dazzling is a musical number (“No Dames”) that pays homage to “On the Town” by way of “South Pacific,” with a sailor-suited Channing Tatum tapping and shuffling about like Gene Kelly reborn, all of it filmed by d.p. Roger Deakins in lengthy takes that allow us to see the dancers’ bodies in full view. The Coens harbor no illusions that the glossy tuners and sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear were high art, but they’ve nonetheless fashioned a sophisticated yet utterly sincere tribute to what Andre Bazin called “the genius of the system,” and it touches an almost hypnotic chord of pleasure.

Next to these gemlike moments — which the Coens, judicious editors of their work as always, refuse to linger on — the poky, eccentric shaggy-dog story being told here all but fades into insignificance. Compared with the numerous kidnapping plots they’ve spun in the past, from “Raising Arizona” to “The Big Lebowski,” the mystery of Baird’s disappearance is resolved with little tension or surprise; it exists, as in so many of their seriocomic fables, as a jumping-off point, a philosophical point of entry. Brolin, marching through the picture wearing a frown and a fedora, becomes one of the Coens’ most endearing and pensive leading men — a man searching for meaning in an industry that can supply only a reasonable facsimile of it at best. The movie’s other great performance comes from the 26-year-old Ehrenreich, who at last fulfills the promise of his work in “Tetro” and the underrated “Beautiful Creatures”: Astonishingly good at playing a bad actor, he turns a hapless matinee-idol stooge into a figure of dogged dependability and surprising selflessness.

Are Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle meant to be the faux-Hollywood version of the Father and the Son, the saving graces of the industry? Only the Coens know. In one amusing early scene, Eddie consults an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a Jewish rabbi to discuss the religious content of Baird’s Roman epic; the ensuing discussion pokes deft fun at the petty sectarianism of organized religion, and the ease with which it can be pounded and churned into big-screen kitsch. But there’s no denying the power of said kitsch in the studio’s climactic re-creation of Calvary, complete with stirring music and soaring speeches, turning “Hail, Caesar!” into a rousing new testament to that old-time religion known as the movies.

Film Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Jan. 19, 2016. (In Berlin Film Festival — opener, noncompeting.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

A Universal release and presentation of a Working Title production. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Executive producer, Robert Grafe

Crew

Directed, written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Camera (color), Roger Deakins; editor, Roderick Jaynes; music, Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; supervising art director, Dawn Swiderski; art director, Cara Brower; set decorator, Nancy Haigh; set designers, Greg Papalia, Easton Smith, Barbara Mesney; costume designer, Mary Zophres; sound, Peter F. Kurland; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay; co-supervising sound editor, Craig Berkey; re-recording mixers, Lievsay, Berkey, Greg Orloff; special effects coordinator, Steve Cremin; visual effects supervisor, Dan Schrecker; visual effects producer, Colleen Bachman Teree; visual effects, Psyop; stunt coordinator, Tad Griffith; stunt co-coordinator, Randy Beckman; assistant director, Betsy Magruder; casting, Ellee Chenoweth.

With

Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ian Blackman.

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  1. Jo Long says:

    “Hail Caesar” was very, very funny, and beautifully done.

  2. Edith I Cassie says:

    This was one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time – if not for Channing Tatum’s song and dance number it would have been a total waste of money to pay to see it.

  3. Soren McCarthy says:

    I loved this film. It is to Christianity what Lebowski was to Buddhism.

    Deceptively light and slight that you enjoy the comedy, and then themes reveal themselves in sharpening relief after. Explores themes, plays them out, doesnt force connections, doesnt hit you over the head with symbolism (it trusts you).

    I found it very smart and compelling. I found it ine of the least condescending films exploring theology/ideology and the people who struggle with their place in them. I have sometimes found the Coens cold and smug regarding the human condition. Absolutely not so here. They dont take the easy way (and so overdone) in portrayals of faith this time.

    Also, this reviewer is superb.

  4. It didn’t all sink in – maybe because I don’t know Hollywood well enough – but there were lots of amusing moments and i got the overall story (I think).

  5. Carl says:

    I had never heard of the Coen brothers before. Now I understand why!!

  6. David says:

    This is such an annoying film that is a hate letter to the 1950s Hollywood with some charming moments, but mostly unfunny humor and offensive approach.

  7. Kris says:

    I’m a latecomer to Justin Chang’s film criticism, but he’s quickly becoming my first reference point for new releases. Another superb piece of writing.

  8. Anthony says:

    Worst film I’ve seen for 5 years – neither funny nor a plot line 1/5

  9. Diane says:

    This was the worst movie I have ever seen. George Clooney “HANG IT UP”!!!

  10. randy says:

    I have seen every movie on the planet
    This one was so badly wriitten,and acting was even worse.
    Miss this one

  11. Pram Hauix says:

    Visit http://bit.ly/1SXHcgB if you want to Watch Hail, Caesar! Full Movie HD.. no buffer, support any Subtitles

  12. Chris Wight says:

    I saw this last night and I agree with the reviewer. It may seem like it’s all in-jokes but not to me – I think it was just very, very ‘meta’ -ie playing with just about everything that movies are: plot, the idea of the climactic moment, the images of movies star (and movie reviewers for that matter), the subservience of writers to the stars (Channing Tatum leaping onto a submarine!!), the status of extras etc etc and as the reviewer says the notion of the true-believer ‘good man’ Hollywood industry insider. I feel like this a strong addition to the body of work for the Coens …and I laughed all the way through
    Also, I don’t really know enough about Hollywood itself but I strongly suspect the specific choices of actors in each of the major roles in this movie probably has some connection to their real lives and rumors/scandals/reputations etc and is yet another set of jokes! I hope so.

  13. Rick Cotton says:

    i wanted so much more. This film was so disappointing, so disjointed, so incoherently unfunny….and why did Scarjo’s parts even exist? That entire unmemorable part could easily have been deleted, and all to the better. Terrible…just terrible. They could have done so much more than this lame piece of reputation-riding. Clooney was funny, but couldn’t save this thing. Oh, well…no one bats a thousand.

  14. dsherm says:

    I saw this movie last night and was extremely disappointed in the lack of plot, the lack of character development, and the inside jokes that only film students would understand and appreciate. The truth is, they blew it. The movie might as well have been a Capitol Films movie…

  15. Jecht says:

    Movie had no climax. So many story lines and no ending in site. For a “comedy” I failed to resonate a single chuckle. Came into this movie with a ton of energy left feeling like a deflated baloon. 1.5 stars. To much sizzle (stars) no steak (content).
    Pass on this one.

  16. Tres says:

    I saw the film tonight; loved it.

  17. bwoolley says:

    Never mind the movie, what a sublime piece of film criticism. Beautifully written, a joy to read.

  18. Rosie says:

    Sounds great, I’m just confused as to why it’s being released in Feb. if it’s so good. They usually release the flops in Feb. What’s up with this?

    It sounds more like it would do well in late spring or summer. Why release it now?

    • cadavra says:

      The studios are finally realizing that releasing movies for grown-ups year-round is smart business. The enormous pile-up of Oscar contenders this past fall kept a lot of worthy films (including TRUMBO) from reaching their full potential.

  19. Can’t wait and most importantly, glad the Coen Brothers are still brothers. Hope Ethan doesn’t become Ethel and the Coens go the way of the Wachowskis…..

  20. 85wzen says:

    Wow glad to hear that the Coen Brothers are still putting it together… very rare in this town to keep that excellence!

  21. GKN says:

    Can’t wait to see this!

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  23. Mark says:

    Can’t wait, counting the days.

  24. kenfurman46 says:

    Sounds like a critical fave but audience bomb just like the Coens over-rated and venal ode to folk music that died a well deserved miserable death. See it for free on HBO next year so you can go to the kitchen for snacks when it gets just too arch.

    • god says:

      Translation:
      “I hate the Coen’s ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and was waiting for this review to be bad, so I could say ‘This should come as no surprise to anyone that’s seen their over-rated and venal ode, etc.’ But since it turned out to be a rave review, I had to revise my post in order get my points in anyway. Whatever…. at least I was able to post my opinion of ‘Oh Brother’ on a ‘Hail, Ceasar’ review, and I hope what I wrote was very provocative. It was worth waiting all morning for the review to post my message.”

      • Jabari says:

        I personally liked O Brother Where Art Thou which was both entertaining and had some point. This movie was/had neither. I wish the Coens would be consistent so I don’t waste my time and money seeing whatever this was supposed to be. This solidly falls into line with Burn after reading or as I like to call it “Burn before watching”

  25. Shawna waldron says:

    I think the writer is sleeping with the Coens…….

  26. DougW says:

    Not sure it’s possible to underrate “Beautiful Creatures.”

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