The Coen Brothers are no strangers to melding the conventional genres of filmmaking, so much so that the final product can’t even be labeled with a genre: they’re each one of a kind and just a grand experience of a movie. Hail Caesar! is another one of those kind of experiences where you just sit back and absorb the events around you and be amazed, even if it’s weird. Oh, and that’s the main movie I’m talking about, not the film within the film—that one is just hokey.
Hail Caesar! is a story of many things, but the main story is focused on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a film producer and famous “fixer” who prevents many events in Hollywood from ever being scandalized. The real life Mannix was famously embroiled in a scandal himself with the death of actor George Reeves—who played Superman in the old Adventures of Superman series—as well as having an affair with Reeves’ wife. (That story was adapted to film already in 2006’s Hollywoodland).
Set in the perfectly picturesque golden age of film, the 1950s, a film within the film is in the midst of production: Hail Caesar!—a film that would’ve been an absolute smash hit if it weren’t for Ben-Hur—starring the famous Baird Whitlock (played by the famous George Clooney). At a point during production, Whitlock is drugged by an extra and then kidnapped to a remote location: the base of a secret organization that refers to itself as “The Future.” Mannix’s job is to find Whitlock without any knowledge of the kidnapping becoming known to the public.
In the midst of this story a whole gallery of characters enters the fray, appearing occasionally throughout the film. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is an actor who is mostly associated with the western genre. He’s not that great, but he got a lucky break when he was heard singing one day. He’s cast in the latest stuffy production from director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), but Doyle can’t seem to pronounce his name right (neither can Mannix) and Laurentz thinks he’s a terrible actor. Other characters enter the story, such as Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly type, singing/ dancing sort of star. Scarlett Johansson plays a character who has an issue with a pregnancy and recent divorce. Also Tilda Swinton—she plays two sisters at once.
The film is told in that Coen-esque structure where you have no clue where events will lead and some things will just come out of left field to surprise you—and there are plenty of those moments that I dare not reveal. The characters themselves are, in essence, more like archetypes than individuals. That’s usually a bad thing, but not here. They’re not the lazy kind of archetype that a screenwriter simply puts out because they have no creativity; this is done on purpose here to give us a chuckle at the Hollywood stars—the typical archetypes they represent are characters of their time. We see this in the Hobie Doyle character as he dons a cowboy hat and is constantly doing tricks with a lasso while Tatum’s character tends to make great leaps and strides with his movements, jumping about, as if he were still on the dancing stage. They ultimately have no personality of their own because they can’t create an identity of their own outside of the movies they’re in. Even the film itself—that is this film, not the film within the film—will do that sort of thing, especially with Michael Gambon’s narration in the films, both of them.
Thus the film captures to near perfection the whole style and language of the time period. But there are also more serious moments set aside.
A very strong religious theme is suggested, and it’s handled quite masterfully in two ways—in both films. Mannix ponders deeply the direction of his career, as he’s been offered a management position of Lockheed Corporation with the benefits of both increased salary and achieving a regular life with his family since his job hours fluctuate and the children whom he loves, he feels, are not getting enough love from him. To Mannix, the problems of his job are much more difficult than those of family life. He has difficulty discerning what the right thing to do is.
Meanwhile the film within the film likes to make a mockery of itself, somewhat. See, they have a problem with you know who (his name starts with a J, if that helps), and Mannix has to figure out whether or not to show his face. In a meeting with the local clerics, an Orthodox priest states that nothing in particular about the script offended him, but he thought that the chariot race scene was pretty bad.
But what is a bit of a problem is something, apparently, the Coens still haven’t quite fixed, as it’s the same issue that The Big Lebowski had. The main plot itself is pretty straightforward, but it occasionally goes off the rails into subplots that fit into that odd spot of being interesting and where there could probably be more to them but nothing much is done with them and they just end abruptly. The main plot gets easily distracted, and that’s the big problem.
I suppose these issues have always been present with Coen Brothers films—and you could make the argument that some of their films just show it more than others. Hail Caesar! has a lot of wonderful throwbacks to old cinema that will interest people who love the movies and who will get the references and in-jokes, but I think it may alienate the people who aren’t well versed with that trivia—or have not yet watched a Coen Brothers film.
The biggest issue that bothered me with the film was that while it was well acted, I didn’t really find the story to be that strong. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting, and as I said, there are some things that come out of left field and hit you in the face so hard you’ll laugh just as hard. While the story is in itself interesting and holds potential, not all that much actually goes on. Everything gets thrown out the window rather abruptly in the third act with how the kidnapping plot is resolved. The movie builds itself up and up and then it forgets the climax, as if to say “That’s all folks!” But at least there is the very interesting character that Brolin portrays: something of an everyman who is trying to find his way in life, and trying to do the right thing naturally.
Perhaps there could have been more. Another issue of the film is that the potential for what could’ve been done could have in fact been done, but I suppose understated storytelling is what makes the Coens such a unique pair of directors in the filmmaking world. I suppose the movie will interest the big film aficionados and people who like the Coens, but it might not be for all—which is probably what they wouldn’t want anyway. They’re not like the guys who made Hail Caesar! who seem to be so overwhelmingly emotional. Which movie am I talking about again?