‘Hail, Caesar!’ Review

Instant-classic Coen comedy comments upon, and celebrates, the studio system

Art by Jeff Victor
Art by Jeff Victor

Hail, Caesar! is a hilarious romp through Hollywood’s Golden Age, a critical-yet-loving look at a bygone era that nevertheless has something to say about our own day and is filled with familiar farcical flourishes from the Coen Brothers.

The film captures a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a problem-solver for one of the big Hollywood studios in the early 1950s. Devoutly religious in the sense that he goes to confession every 27 hours (or so) in order to confess that he’s sneaking cigarettes, and profoundly irreligious in the sense that he spends his days covering up for Hollywood’s harlots and cads, Mannix is faced with a conundrum after the star of the biblical epic Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ goes missing.

But Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) isn’t on one of his normal benders, holed up in some fleabag with a floozy. He’s been kidnapped by a group of high-minded types who hope to convert him to their cause and bring about a revolution.

In addition to fending off inquiries from sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, pulling double duty) about Whitlock’s disappearance, Mannix must also manage the unexpected pregnancy of studio starlet DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and a floundering costume drama helmed by European director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

It’s all in a day’s work for Mannix, which is why he’s considering getting out of the movie biz and settling for a simple nine-to-five gig with Lockheed Martin.

Hail, Caesar! is a critique of the studio system. You can feel Joel and Ethan Coen, consummate auteurs, practically laughing aloud at the absurdity of a studio head sticking a cowboy picture star like Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a tux and shoving him onto the soundstage of a prestigious costume drama helmed by an artiste. And they are clearly skeptical of the treatment of women during this period. The lengths to which Mannix and Moran must go to keep her forthcoming child a secret are funny and sad, and the warehousing of the only behind-the-camera creative woman in an editing bay (C.C. Calhoun, performed in a brief-but-brilliant turn by Frances McDormand) is very true to life.

Yet you can’t help but feel as if they have some sentimentality for this bygone age. This is perhaps most apparent in their loving recreation of a studio musical’s dance number, one in which Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is decked out in a sailor’s uniform and winds up in a variety of compromising positions with his shipmates after the dames skedaddle. The Coens’ parody of this style of picture makes subtext text (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but it’s clear they love the silliness of it all. Nor do they appear to altogether object to the studio-arranged romance between Doyle and Latin bombshell Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio). Sure, they play the arrangement for laughs—but never mean-spirited ones.

There’s also a rather amusing critique of the current mania for pandering to specialty audiences in order to make sure nothing is offensive. Given that this critique is framed as a quartet of religious leaders being consulted to ensure that Hail, Caesar! offends none of their sensibilities—a real-life concern for Golden Age studios dealing with the Hays Code and the Catholic Church, and no less of one now for modern studios dealing with their latter day equivalents, The Bechdel Test and Jezebel—one wonders if the subtlety of the comment will be missed.

Fans of the Coens’ famous wordplay will love Hail, Caesar! and the interactions between Doyle ("Okay Mr. Laurence") and Laurentz ("Laurentz") in particular. With one glaring exception, the performances are all top notch: in addition to the above listed bright light stars, there are brief turns from Jonah Hill, Wayne Knight, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, and, hilariously, Christopher Lambert (best known as the Highlander).

The exception is Clooney, who I’ve never quite cottoned to in Coen films. He’s great in other material, perfect as a suave, confident type. But when he works for the Coens he has a bad habit of thinking that pulling a funny face—mouth open, eyes wide, shock feigned—is an appropriate substitute for acting. This problem is only amplified in Hail, Caesar!, where he’s trying to play a classic Hollywood ham.

Fortunately Clooney isn’t in the film all that much. And even when he is, it’s hard to hold his hacky act against him: Hail, Caesar! is just so joyous and rapturous that you get caught up in the moment. An early contender for best picture of the year, Hail, Caesar! is a must-see for fans of the Coens and old Hollywood alike.