Hail, Caesar! (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

It feels like a love letter both to movies and movie lovers.


If forming an opinion based only on the poster, one might be forgiven for expecting the new Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! to be similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, like how True Grit bore some surface similarities to No Country for Old Men. Coen brothers, George Clooney, appears to be set in the past, punctuation-heavy title… Sounds like O Brother. In actuality, Hail, Caesar! does often feel like a lot of other films, Coens and otherwise, but Brother isn’t one of them. If it helps you to understand, it’s a hell of a lot more like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? then it is O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

The Roger Rabbit reference comes about because of Caesar’s milieu—it’s set in the 1940s Hollywood studio system, and our main character, here Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is a noirish fixer out to solve a crime. (Compare to Bob Hoskins’ private dick Eddie Valiant in Roger Rabbit.) In Caesar, the crime that needs to be solved is that of the kidnapping of huge movie star Baird Whitlock (Clooney), who, of course with this being 40s Hollywood, was kidnapped by communists. (One wonders if Universal held the release of Hail, Caesar! to this not-ideal February slot so that we could all get a chance to see Trumbo first.) But most of the time, neither Mannix nor Hail, Caesar! are really all that concerned with this plot, as there are constantly fires to be put out elsewhere.

Most amusing of these fires is Western star Hobie Doyle (Coppola protégé Alden Ehrenreich, easily the standout in a big, excellent cast), a sweet kid who the studio has opted to rebrand, sticking him in some sort of Sirkian melodrama which is being directed by the somewhat effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, not far off from Grand Budapest Hotel mode). Elsewhere we have Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, who’s finding herself with child right when the studio is wanting to marry her off. Frances McDormand is a grizzled editor, who appears not to have left her dark and musty editing suite for maybe decades. Channing Tatum plays a homoerotic and hunky Fred Astaire type. Tilda Swinton plays two roles, sister gossip columnists, and is as always great in both roles (though they’re fundamentally the same). Jonah Hill is Joseph Silverman, also a fixer, though of a different strain than Mannix—he’s perhaps half fixer, half fall guy. As one might guess, none of these actors, barring maybe only Brolin and Ehrenreich, are able to carve out much of Caesar’s scant 106-minute runtime for themselves, and if you’re going to see the movie only because, say, you’re a fan of Scarlett or Channing, you’re likely to be disappointed. But it’s hard to be too mad at a film with this level of economy of character—even the tiniest roles are filled with memorable character actors, such as Alex Karpovsky, David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed, or, most delightfully, Wayne Knight (aka Newman from Seinfeld).

At its worst, Hail, Caesar! feels hugely self-indulgent on the part of the Coens, like they were just throwing up all of the stuff they ever wanted to see on the screen, not worrying about whether it all made sense or not. At its best, it feels like a love letter both to movies and movie lovers. It’s fun to pick out which films, which directors, which historical events, which actors, etc. the film is paying homage to, satirizing, referencing, or maybe all at once. But even if you aren’t terribly well educated about 40s era American films, you’ll likely still have this reaction—Trumbo aside, recent films as varied as The Hateful Eight (the opening shot to which is similar to Hail, Caesar!’s) and Troma movies (in Caesar’s over-the-top Foley work) were called to my mind upon first viewing. And it’s funny besides. So while it may be lesser Coens, they’re filmmakers of enough stature that that still makes Hail, Caesar! a better film than what most other directors can ever hope to make. | Pete Timmermann


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