Hail, Caesar! is custom made to be every cinephile’s nostalgic dream, where Joel and Ethan Coen openly invite the audience to nuzzle in for a cinematic hug. It’s a rare delightful feeling that I haven’t experienced this acutely or overtly, since Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The duo’s latest comedy caper is as giddy, goofy and eccentric as you’ve come to expect from them, but it’s also a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Even more than this, it’s a film that recognises the sacredness of cinema.
From the onset, the religious symbolism (predominantly Catholic) is constantly at the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds and camera. The film opens with an image of a crucifix that slowly dissolves into a depiction of a crucified Jesus. Hail, Caesar! is rife with these kind of holy allegories, both subtle and explicit. Characters are lit by streaming God rays from above. Others question their purpose/direction in life, while others confess their sins at the same rate they devour cigarettes. This is about film as church, as much as it is film as life.
At the head of this spiritual/existential/professional crisis is Josh Brolin who plays yet another stereotypically Coen-esque protagonist, who strives for calm and order in a sea of chaotic shenanigans and absurd tomfoolery. Here, Brolin plays a heightened/fictionalised version of Eddie Mannix, MGM’s real life movie “fixer”. His main task is to ensure that all Capitol Picture productions, movie stars and morality clauses are kept firmly in check.
He’s surrounded by a cavalcade of modern day movie stars who appear mostly as cameos to satirise as much of the ‘50s studio system as possible. Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum all leave their mark in very limited screen time, with Tatum absolutely stealing the show in a rousing tap-dance sequence.
Special mention also needs to be made for Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes, whose clashing ideologies and approaches to dramatic acting and dialogue delivery, present a masterful and riotous display of perfect comic timing.
Some may lament the film’s lack of plot, and that criticism isn’t totally unfounded. The narrative is stripped back considerably and is episodically structured from scene to scene, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure it spends much of its time spoofing several Hollywood genres (film within a film style) with lavish period design and directorial precision, but the results are often affectionately and joyously entertaining.
The only other performer to receive any amount of considerable screen time (other than Brolin) is George Clooney, who again appears to delight in playing against type as the Coen’s go-to village idiot. His Charlton Heston-inspired Baird Whitlock is clueless yet supremely likeable. His kidnapping by disgruntled Hollywood screenwriters with communist sympathies, reveals the balanced affections and reflections the filmmakers have for the era.
Not everything is as glossy and rose-coloured as it seems, and Hollywood built itself on exploitation as much as it did on glamourous prestige pictures. The Coen’s don’t shy away from engaging with this darker side of the industry. Scandals were covered up and diffused privately. Actor’s sexuality and dalliances were hidden from the press. Writers were subjugated and grossly underpaid. All institutions are flawed, and Brolin’s Mannix must come to reconcile the good with the bad in his industry.
“Would that it were so simple.”
The bottom line is, that this is a gleefully made, old-school tribute (warts and all) to a bygone era. The randomness and inconsequential plotting is almost certain to prove irritating for casual viewers without the same appreciation for the style or time period. For lovers and worshippers of cinema, Hail, Caesar! presents us all with a healthy dose of positive reinforcement about the importance that the medium holds within us. It helps us justify with our family, peers and colleagues why we spend so much time at the theatre and why we’ve devoted so much of our life to immersing ourselves within it.
The cinema is our church. We’re glad the Coen’s have once again helped to remind us of that fact.
“Squint, squint at the grandeur.”