“Hail, Caesar!” Review: A Loving, Mocking Tribute to 1950s Hollywood
Because Hail, Caesar! is such a very Coen-y movie, it won’t win the brothers many new converts. But longtime fans of Joel and Ethan will soak up this latest, joyful formulation of old, semi-serious ideas.
In movies like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and parts of No Country For Old Men, we’ve seen the Coens scorn petty crime and its self-serving justifications. We’ve felt them roll their eyes at -isms and puncture the pomposity of -ists in Lebowski and Barton Fink. In The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and, frankly, most of their films including remakes and adaptations, we’ve detected the Coens’ fascination with mid-20th-century Americana. It’s all here in Hail, Caesar! too, but closer to the surface than before. And maybe closer to the Coens’ own lives, too, as they consider what it means to be popular and acclaimed moviemakers.
What it means to their lead character Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the opportunity to work in an industry that creates meaning and beauty. Mannix has no illusions about what goes on behind the scenes of the movie biz; he has to wrangle wayward starlets, mollify irate directors, and keep his stars’ most dangerous secrets out of the gossip columns. The stress of the job puts a strain on his marriage and drives him to the confession booth on a near-daily basis. But what could he do instead, work for Lockheed and help make planes that drop H-Bombs on Pacific atolls? On the sliding scale of sin, Mannix and the Coens feel that Hollywood is more Heavenly than government work.
What the industry means to Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is stardom and romps up the California coast with other A-listers. Whitlock name-drops Danny Kaye, a real-life comedian and variety show host; Hail, Caesar! is full of such Easter eggs for fans of midcentury entertainment. The movie Whitlock is making when he is kidnapped is one of the Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, Spartacus-type ‘50s blockbusters that delivered wholesome Christian messages in the dress of Roman hedonism. Not that Whitlock cares about messages. He is a blank slate, adapting readily (and, credit Clooney, hilariously) to whatever directors, producers, and even kidnappers demand of him.
The kidnappers are a group of tweedy, bowtie-wearing leftist screenwriters who recite Marx and the Hegelian dialectic. Think of people like Carl Foreman, Dalton Trumbo, and Gore Vidal, who supposedly smuggled socialist, homosexual, and other “subversive” content into the movies they wrote, under the noses of censors and Hollywood’s interdenominational religious advisers. The writers’ intellectual but unpersuasive chatter is classic Coen caricature in the vein of The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak. The writing is not as baroque as in some of their earlier films, but Clooney and the Coens play these scenes less like earnest freshman philosophy courses and more like broad, almost physical comedy.
Satirical sight gags are also at play in scenes featuring the singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), his studio-approved, Carmen Miranda-like date (Veronica Osorio), the Scarlett Johansson movie “mermaid” inspired by splashy Esther Williams movies, and Channing Tatum in one of those On the Town or Anchors Aweigh musicals that make you wonder why the Navy and not the Army attracts all the best dancers. Tatum’s show-stopping “No Dames!” number might be the highlight of Hail, Caesar!, but it is rivaled by a tongue-twisting scene where an aristocratic European director (Ralph Fiennes) tries to teach a drawling Hobie Doyle to speak in a mid-Atlantic accent for a drama of manners.
To fully appreciate Hail, Caesar!, you have to recognize the genres and actors the Coens are sending up. Queue Ben-Hur, Million Dollar Mermaid, Anchors Aweigh, and Rio Bravo before you see this movie, and the scenes that lampoon them will work wonderfully. When Mannix gets serious about what movies mean to him, you’ll know more about why. But recognizing references can’t save a bad gag. In the weakest parts of Hail, Caesar!, Tilda Swinton pays a pair of feuding gossip columnists (think Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons) whose interactions with Mannix are hammy and hollow. The one laugh in them is a recurring sound, the distant and dramatic cry of an eagle whose meaning must remain mysterious until the end.
Hail, Caesar! is too light to qualify as one of the Coens’ best movies, but it’s too fun to be among their worst. Let’s compare it to a few others, Flickchart-style.
Hail, Caesar! vs. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Another comedy that centers on Clooney, Roger Deakins’ groundbreaking cinematography and a soundtrack that brought bluegrass back to the charts keeps O Brother on top.
Winner: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Hail, Caesar! vs. The Hudsucker Proxy
The Hudsucker Proxy sets ‘50s tropes against a ‘30s art deco backdrop for a very dry comedy about business and invention. Hail, Caesar!’s movie set segments rival it for production design and get more laughs.
Winner: Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! vs. Raising Arizona
Raising Arizona is like a live-action Mel Blanc cartoon starring trailer park recidivists instead of rabbits. It’s wilder and more densely-written than Hail, Caesar!, and the performances of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter top even Clooney and Swinton.
Winner: Raising Arizona