Where do I even begin with this one?
Hail, Caesar! — rather like its cinematic sibling, The Big Lebowski — is a Coen Brothers picture that’s virtually impossible to adequately summarize because its plot goes sprawling in so many different directions and storylines. There is a de facto protagonist (Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin) who works as the head of the fictional Capitol Pictures studio. And there is something of a central crisis, as world-renowned superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped off the set of a Biblical epic that the whole studio is banking on. (That would be the eponymous Hail, Caesar!, which is more or less a stand-in for Ben-Hur).
(Side note: Apparently, this protagonist is loosely based on the real Eddie Mannix, who played a crucial management role in MGM during the ’40s and ’50s.)
Yet the whole ransom storyline is weighed down by the studio politics and nosy reporters (in this case, a pair of feuding twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton) that naturally start to circle around the disappearance of an A-list actor. And that’s even before a weird group of closeted Hollywood communists gets involved. (Did I mention that the film is set in the 1950s?)
And completely independent of all that, we’ve got a hick cowboy action star (Hobie Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich) struggling to work through his first major speaking role. This on top of yet another independent storyline in which DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has to deal with a sudden out-of-wedlock pregnancy in a way that doesn’t affect her current production or her career.
(Side note: It’s interesting to note how art imitates life here. Aside from Beautiful Creatures — and really, why would anyone count that? — Ehrenreich is himself an actor who had only a mere handful of quaternary roles before proving himself as a leading man with this picture. As for Johansson, she was quite famously pregnant through production on Avengers: Age of Ultron before she and her fiance had been married. Her presence here highlights the fact that only a few short decades ago, that would have been enough to send her out of show business in disgrace. How far we’ve come.)
And while all of that is going on, we’ve got actors like Jonah Hill, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Clancy Brown, Frances McDormand, Allison Pill, Christopher Lambert, Wayne Knight, and God knows who else showing up just long enough to spout a few great lines, pick up a paycheck, and skedaddle. All of this in addition to the religious debates, comedy bits, musical numbers, and other digressions that stop the movie dead in its tracks for several minutes at a time.
Look, there’s no denying that the movie is entertaining. Every single actor in this piece gets their chance to shine because they’re all insanely talented, and also because there’s nobody else in the business who can present memorable one-off side characters like the Coen Brothers. Even if it’s just a scene of two or more characters bickering, the writing and directing make it hilarious to watch. Even better, the musical numbers are all positively delightful. Johansson (who’s never looked more amazing, by the way) has a dazzling Busby Berkely tribute, and Channing Tatum gets a number that deserves its own damn movie. Seriously, that’s the role Tatum was born to play.
The movie works as a heartfelt and whip-smart tribute to the Golden Age of the 1950s, back when Hollywood was coming into its own as the once and future Tinseltown. The colors, shadows, and camera angles are all done in a way that clearly evoke nostalgia for that era, and the production design is mind-blowing in its scope.
More importantly, the Coens use this setting as a means of examining Hollywood from every conceivable angle, to show what it was like back then and how things have either changed or stayed the same. The relationship between actors and studios, the role of the press, who gets how much of the profit for their part in making the movies, whether movies are made for money or artistic merit, and all the various minutiae of what goes on behind the scenes are all discussed in depth. And if the Coen Brothers want to talk about what makes Hollywood tick, you’d be a fool not to listen.
My favorite example concerns yet another subplot in which Eddie Mannix is being courted for a high-level management position over at Lockheed. In the process, there’s the question of why anyone would ever go to the movies when every household will have a TV. What’s more, Mannix is shown a picture of Bikini Atoll getting blown to bits by an H-bomb, with the message that warplanes and weapons of mass destruction will be the future.
Of course, we in the 21st century know that even after television and videotapes and technologies that no one in the ’50s could possibly have dreamed of, movies still haven’t gone anywhere. But why is that? What is it that keeps us coming back to the movies? Moreover, we know that the nuclear doomsday scenario prophesied in the Cold War days never came to pass. But it’s worth asking what pulled us back from that ledge.
Alas, getting back to the problem I was talking about earlier, there’s a downside to approaching Hollywood from so many angles in so much detail, often through putting in so many different clips of fictional movies from several different genres. This movie is all over the place, with so many distractions that it makes for an incohesive and badly paced final product. It’s fascinating to watch, and the Coens leave a lot for the audience to think about on the way home, but there’s virtually nothing in terms of story or character to hang onto.
Hail, Caesar! is the kind of movie that could only have been made by the Coens. All of their strengths in casting, writing, editing, and directing are in full effect here, and that incredible presentation is the only thing holding this piecemeal film together. It’s undeniably a good movie — more than smart and funny enough to stay watchable from start to finish — but the proceedings are so erratic and the tone is so inconsistent that it falls well short of the greatness that we know the Coens are capable of.
It’s absolutely worth watching, especially at this otherwise dull time of year (Another Nicholas Sparks snoozefest, anyone?), but the filmmakers were very wise not to position this as an awards contender.