Hail, Caesar! (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson & Tilda Swinton
Music: Carter Burwell
Release Date: March 4th 2016
Few names get cinephiles as excited as Joel & Ethan Coen. The writer/director brothers have been responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed movies in recent memory, such as ‘Fargo‘, ‘No Country For Old Men‘, ‘A Serious Man‘ and more, whilst also creating iconic cult films like ‘The Big Lebowski‘ and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis‘. Their pedigree as terrific filmmakers could not be more well established and…they don’t really do anything for me.
I wouldn’t place any of their films on any “Worst of” lists, buts I can’t help but feel phenomenally indifferent to almost everything they put out. In fact, I actually think it’s in their comedy where they excel with ‘Burn After Reading‘ being my favourite film of theirs. But I’m clearly in the minority and their clout in the industry at least allows them to assemble star-studded casts spouting witty dialogue. But how would someone like me respond to ‘Hail, Caesar!‘, a supposed love-letter to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood? Would I have the same indifference or is there really something to their style that I’ve been missing?
It’s 1951 and Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a “fixer” at the fictional Capitol Pictures in Hollywood. Essentially, he manages productions and looks after the contracted actors to make sure their escapades don’t wind up in the press. Capitol Pictures is nearing the end of production for their biggest movie of the year; “Hail, Caesar!” lead by superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney). However, Whitlock gets kidnapped by a secret organisation known only as “The Future” and they demand $100,000 in ransom money. It’s up to Eddie to discover what is going on, ensure “Hail, Caesar!” gets completed and come to terms with whether or not this is the right job for him.
While ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ is a fictional story, its setting and characters invite parallels to real-life Hollywood figures. Baird Whitlock is a Kirk Douglas-style star, Western/Cowboy actor Hobie Doyle is comparable to Kirby Grant, Burt Gurney is starring in a sailor-style musical as a Gene Kelly-esque actor and Tilda Swinton portrays the Thacker twins who are journalists with a rivalry similar to Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Also Eddie Mannix, while a real life fixer, has nothing in-common with his on-screen counterpart other than his name and occupation (the real Mannix was a brute with mafia connections and was involved in numerous scandals in a deplorable marriage.
To talk about the themes at play in ‘Hail, Caesar!‘, I’m gonna need to delves into some real-life history so…buckle up.
‘Hail, Caesar!‘s setting of 1951 is at a point where the Hollywood Studio System was starting to break down. Back then actors would be under exclusive contracts with the studios, would often live in trailers and their lives would be controlled by the monopoly of “The Big Five” in Hollywood (MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and R.K.O. Pictures). And just to emphasise that this was a LITERAL monopoly, the studios also owned the theatre chains that would screen their movies so they could refuse to screen rival movies to prop up their own releases and would also deny theatre chains the prints of their blockbuster movies unless they also screened their smaller, junk releases (in a process known as “block-booking”). If that sounds illegal…that’s because it was and in a 1948 Supreme Court ruling (“United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.”) these artistic, dictatorial tactics were forbidden and the “Golden Age” of Hollywood started to come to an end.
Now, you’re here for a review and not a history lesson, but that context is important in order to decipher just what the Coen Brothers are doing with ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ as it’s a condemnation of the Studio System as a business but a celebration of the films that they created under such a system. Yes, the studios worked with the tabloids so they could control information…but ‘Gone With The Wind‘. Yes, actors were cast in certain parts regardless of whether or not they’re a fit for the role…but ‘Sunset Boulevard‘. Actors were sent on fake dates so they could create scandals to drum up promotion for upcoming movies regardless of their actual sexuality and also control the actors and treat them as objects by forcing them to alter their bodies and lifestyles to meet their demands…but ‘The Wizard of Oz‘, ‘King Kong‘, ‘Singin’ In The Rain‘, ‘Anchors Aweigh‘, ‘Casablanca‘, ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington‘…you get my point, hopefully.
‘Hail, Caesar!‘ is walking a razor thin line by acknowledging that the system it portrays is immoral and broken but also reminding audience members of the iconography such a system created by drawing the parallels between the fictional actors and movies it depicts and the real life figures it takes inspiration from. One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Ralph Fiennes as a prestige director making a drama being saddled with Alden Ehrenreich as a western-movie star with a thick accent and an inability to speak dramatic dialogue. This sequence makes up most of the second trailer, but in context it’s even funnier as the scenario drags on and on and seeing this high-brow director’s kind façade diminish in the face of this earnest and kind-hearted actor determined to do well shows how far subtle characterisation can carry a comedic set-piece.
Just like ‘Burn After Reading‘, the Coen Brothers find themselves right at home with dialogue-driven comedy, such as a scenario where Eddie has gathered four prominent religious figures representing different faiths to see if their new “Hail, Caesar!” movie is inoffensive and the four can’t agree. The dialogue really does pop and the actors are truly on the same wavelength as the writers meaning we get well fleshed out characters brimming with personality. This actually ends up working against ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ to an extent as many sub-plots either don’t see a resolution or end off-screen because the cast is so big. I wanted to know if Ralph Fiennes ever got his film made and how it was received, I wanted to know if Alden Ehrenreich’s date nearer the end of the movie ever got a follow-up etc. In a sense, ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ might be one of the best pilots to a television series that will never get made.
Using Eddie Mannix as a window into this vast and varied world of a 1950s studio was a brilliant concept but it feels like a concept too big for a standalone story. Despite their prominence in the marketing campaign, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill only get one scene and Jonah Hill only gets around 10 words in the entire movie. For crying out loud, Jonah Hill is credited OVER Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson despite only having a fraction of the screen-time. He must have a ridiculously good agent. Also, we have a twist reveal towards the end as to who in the studio was behind the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock but because we only met the character very very briefly beforehand, it was a twist that probably didn’t have the impact it was supposed to.
We also have the issue of Eddie Mannix’s entire character arc and thought-process being internal for almost the entirety of the movie as he decides whether or not to move onto an easier, better-paid job which also allows him to spend time with his family. We spend so much time bandying about from character to character that we don’t really understand why it’s such a hard decision for him until right at the very end and even then it feels like too little too late. That’s got nothing to do with Josh Brolin who is on fire in this movie, it just feels like his character-arc is under-written and the priorities of ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ often feel skewed because the audience will be treated to a ‘South Pacific‘-esque musical sequence with Channing Tatum for 5 minutes, but it couldn’t find time to flesh out its main character’s thought process. As great as it is to see an affectionately re-created “Golden Age” dance number, maybe it’s something that should have played as background dressing as opposed to being the sole focus for longer than is necessary.
Not to mention a 2 minute sequence where a submarine surfaces or a lengthy recreation of a big-budget swimming movie in the vein of ‘Million Dollar Mermaid‘, it begs the question of whether or not the Coen Brothers need an outside influence in the editing room.
However, as a tour-guide of Capitol Pictures, a lot of the movie is held together by terrific performances. George Clooney is as great an on-screen presence as you’d expect, Scarlett Johansson is a lot of fun playing an angelic-looking woman with the mouth of a sailor, Ralph Fiennes proves again after ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ that he’s such a gifted comedic performer but the breakout star is easily Alden Ehrenreich as a gun-slinging actor who really is as nice and as sincere as he lets on…which makes the scenes of him being forced to take part in a high-brow drama all the funnier. The movie does have a big cast but the above names and Josh Brolin really are at the main players as the rest of the cast is comprised of one-scene, walk-on cameos at best.
The story itself works with Eddie having to discover who “The Future” are and ensure that the production of “Hail, Caesar!” gets completed but any character-depth during that time feels like it would have been better spread out over the course of a 12-episode television series which I would love to see from this creative team. But the movie overall still works because it has a irresistible charm, the cast are so game and the sub-textual critique of the Hollywood studio system gives audience members in-the-know plenty to chew on, but it feels like the Coen Brothers bit off more than they could chew here.
But the film looks terrific as Roger Deakins provides predictably awesome cinematography with many bright colours and heavy shadows in the right environment. The sets and studios that Eddie Mannix finds himself on are packed with detail and the costumes are terrific. Despite its modest $22M budget, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ looks double that (at least) and is worth seeing on the big-screen. The music is period-accurate, the sight-gags are plentiful and anyone who has a passing familiarity or affectation towards 1950s Hollywood will find something to enjoy here. This feels like the biggest movie the Coen Brothers have ever done and I can’t really fault the production values, other than an oddly out-of-place Michael Gambon providing pointless narration.
As a character piece examining Eddie Mannix the “fixer” of Capitol Pictures, ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ feels too ambitious for its own good as the window-dressing of 1950s “Golden Age” Hollywood gets in the way of any character growth for almost everyone in the central cast. But as a walking-tour of that era, a thoughtful reflection on the benefits and moral drawbacks of the faltering studio system in 1951 filled with great dialogue, gut-busting comedic set-pieces, gorgeous production design, a brilliant ensemble cast and delivering pure entertainment, ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ succeeds with flying colours. In fact, I’d say that this is the Coen Brothers’ best movie, though bare in mind that I’m not a fan of their dramatic work so maybe that conclusion doesn’t hold much weight with you.
I give ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Mar 16