The most brilliant thing about the Coen Brothers particular brand of comedy is that they are able to effectively make fun of something while clearly showing how much admiration and respect that have for it. Fargo is often viewed as a scathing commentary of the “Midwestern nice” way of life. While this is certainly true, one can’t help but also look at the film as a celebration of it as well. After all, the Coens grew up around the people they were so effectively satirizing. So let it be with Hail, Caesar! The Coen’s latest comedy spends the majority of its running time fiercely ridiculing the Old Hollywood studio system, while simultaneously celebrating the films it produced. It is a love letter dripping with ridicule. It’s also really freaking funny.
The film centers on a fictional Capitol Pictures production manager Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), loosely based on real life MGM film executive of the same name. We follow Mannix through a day in the life of a studio executive, watching him deftly handle a series of increasingly ridiculous problems. Mannix has an outstanding job offer from Lockheed; a new job that pays more, has better hours and would take him away from the insanity of show business. Eddie has the day to decide if it’s what he wants. Of course, it just happens to be one of the most ridiculous days ever.
Fans of Coen Brothers movies know that the plot of the film is often only tangentially related to what is happening on screen, a necessary but underused connecting point to showcase a series of ridiculous (and often amusing) character moments. Hail, Caesar! embraces this same methodology more than any previous Coen film. Those who saw the trailer will be surprised to learn that the apparent inciting moment of the film’s plot, the kidnapping of Capitol Pictures super star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is but one of many problems Mannix will face during the day. These problems including the studio mandated casting of a country bumpkin Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) in a upscale Broadway based picture with a very unhappy director (Ralph Fiennes), an unwed pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson), twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) threatening to expose some dirt on one of the studio’s biggest stars, and the continued shooting of the studio’s biggest picture, the titular Hail, Caesar!, without the presence of it’s lead. All of these moments are wonderful and get equal time compared to the kidnapping/ransom plot.
As we follow Eddie Mannix around the studio, the Coens get to flex their directorial muscle, playing with style, camerawork and lighting to recreate classic Hollywood films of almost every genre. We get to see Westerns, comedies, parlour dramas, synchronized swimming spectaculars, large scale epics, and perhaps my favorite, tap dancing numbers led by Channing Tatum doing his best Gene Kelly. To say these are all directed and filmed well would be the understatement of the century. Hail, Caesar! is the Coen’s White Album, proving they can effectively play in any genre they want, while respecting the art of each of them.
The performances in this ensemble cast are unsurprisingly great. Brolin plays Mannix with a neurotic, guilty charm. The straight man of the film, he’s damn good at his job, but can’t really decide if that’s a good thing or not. George Clooney is here to remind us that goofy Clooney remains the best Clooney, giving us the best self-absorbed movie star performance I’ve seen in a long time. All of the other performances are equally wonderful, each getting their own moment to shine. While trying to pick the best performance and my favorite scene I found that it was impossible. There’s just too much good here to single any one thing out. Except Frances McDormand as film editor C.C. Calhoun. That was unforgettably delightful.
On the surface, Hail, Caesar! seems like a minor Coen movie. A film not saying much, but having a good time doing it. While that’s kind of true, I think there’s also something much deeper going on here. The lengths that Eddie Mannix has to go just to ensure Capitol Pictures keeps operating are absurd. The studio system was a morally bankrupt, corrupt, star-coddling machine that hurt as many people as it helped. But to Eddie Mannix, and to the Coens themselves, all of this was worth it in the service of something bigger: the films themselves. The titular Caesar of this film is not the Roman Emperor or Jesus Christ of the film within the film. Nor is it Eddie Mannix, a simple, albeit necessary cog that keeps the picture machine turning. No, Caesar is film itself. The grand, wonderful art that, despite the cruelty of its system, created something bigger and more important than the sum of all its parts.
Hail, Caesar. Hail, Movies. Hail, Coens.