A new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is always a big deal, and the marketing push for Hail, Caesar! juiced anticipation, at least among the cinephile community. A kidnapping comedy (whatever “comedy” means when the Coens are concerned) set in the studio-centric days of Old Hollywood starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and more seems like the perfect recipe for a great movie.
Of course, the actual product produced by the brothers is not what was advertised, and probably for the best. As opposed to being about an Avengers-style team of various fictional celebrities tasked with rescuing Clooney’s superstar Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is actually an ensemble piece depicting the lives and troubles of various people working in and around Capitol Pictures, as seen through the eyes of executive and fix-it man Eddie Mannix (Brolin). While this doesn’t yield the suspense and intrigue audiences may have been expecting, it does allow the Coens to play with all of the popular genres of the era, including sword-and-sandal epics, chamber dramas based on plays, westerns, jaunty naval musicals, and whatever weird mermaid/synchronized-swimming movie Johansson’s character is appear in (so my cinematic knowledge isn’t that expansive).
These excerpted scenes are incredibly entertaining, and Hail, Caesar! isn’t lacking in comedy either. Mannix’s meeting with various religious figures (including Robert Picardo as an exasperated rabbi) is wonderful, and the first meeting between Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy-turned-actor Hobie Doyle and Ralph Fiennes’s particular director Laurence Laurentz made me laugh more than anything else this year (I guess that’s not saying much when the competition is Ride Along 2, Dirty Grandpa, and Fifty Shades of Black).
As with any Coen Brothers picture, there is plenty to mine from the film than solely what’s evident on the shiny Roger Deakins-shot surface. The critiques of the influx of twisted communism into Hollywood are clear, but the Coens are hardly glorifying the alternative embodied by the controlling system Mannix and Capitol represent. Well, technically they are literally glorifying the studio (this is “a tale of the Christ,” after all), but it’s clear that the directorial intent is slightly more complicated than that. A lot of critics look at the movie as Joel and Ethan’s coming-to-terms with the studio system, but depicting an organization that constantly manipulates its employees (even physically assaulting them) regardless of their desires is more a “lesser of two evils” than a “shining city upon a hill.” The movies themselves have value (“You have worth if you serve the picture,” Mannix tells Whitlock) – we’re not so convinced when it comes to the system that produces them.
The Coen Brothers’ light but engaging new picture Hail, Caesar! earns four out of five Jews with very little patience for you bullshit: