Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Lights. Camera. Abduction.

Over the years acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have taken us to a variety of different worlds, each peppered with their unique idiosyncratic tone and kooky, off-kilter characters; Fargo (1996) took us to a frosty neo-noir North Dakota, the spoof O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) plopped us headfirst into the Depression-era South, while the Western remake True Grit (2010) swept viewers through the American Wild West in the 1800s. Now, in their 17th full-length feature the brothers take us all the way back to the heyday of Hollywood during the 1950s (1951 to be precise) in their love letter to the ‘golden age’ of movies.

To give a bit of context, the early 1950s was a transitional time for the motion picture industry as the studio system was beginning to show some cracks, major studios having been forced to divest themselves of their theaters as television (still in it’s early years) threatened the industry. What’s more, the political and social landscape at the time was facing post-World War II changes given the frenzy over the Red Scare and the Cold War. Hollywood responded to these threats (both real and bogus) by providing people with splashy escapist fare as audiences were treated with a number of wide-screen biblical epics, such as The Ten Commandments (1956), bold Technicolor musicals with Busby Berkeley-type aquatic numbers (think 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid), as well as countless burly Westerns and refined drawing-room dramas.

Behind every actor is a 'fixer' holding it all together.
Behind every actor is a ‘fixer’ holding it all together.

Furthermore, large studios such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Warner Bros. micromanaged both their talents’ professional and private lives. Cigar-chomping moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner controlled everyone on their payroll as celebs were literally told what movies they could star in, how to dress, and even who to date — a far cry from today’s social media culture. Keeping all this in mind, Hail, Caesar! has sorta kinda been inspired by the real life exploits of Eddie Mannix, a mobster-esque ‘fixer’ with a Mafia mentality who was paid bucket loads by MGM to keep the company financially afloat (he helped boost the career of screen legend Ava Gardner for instance) while cleaning up a lot of its scandal-prone stars’ images, including Greta Garbo’s lesbian relationships.

Inspired by this no-nonsense ‘fixer,’ Hail, Caesar! follows a day in the life of a fictionalized version of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a devout Catholic and family man who’s pretty much responsible for everything that goes on at Capitol Pictures, working around the clock to ensure that things at the dream factory remain in check. Mannix generally starts his day off by going to confession, fretting over his secret tendency to smoke, which he has been hiding from his caring wife, Connie (Alison Pill). From there, we follow ‘Fast Eddie’ through his daily routine at Capital Pictures — the same fictional studio which appeared in the superior 1991 Coen brothers film Barton Fink — as each tent-pole pic comes with its own set of problems or obstacles that he must resolve.

'Dude, where's my sword?'
‘Dude, where’s my sword?’

Throughout the day Mannix must figure out a press-friendly way to get an Esther Williams-type swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) out of a personal crisis, deal with a disgruntled highbrow director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who’s unhappy about having Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a Roy Rogers-type of singin’ cowboy, cast in his latest sophisticated drama, and to top it all off, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney channeling Kirk Douglas) — one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers — seems to have gone missing right in the middle of his newest swords-and-sandals production, Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ, with a mysterious group who call themselves ‘The Future’ claiming to have kidnapped the star for a hefty ransom. Whizzing from one complication to the next, Mannix must also dodge a pair of rival twin-sister Hedda Hopper-type gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), unless he’s concocting a juicy story to give the sisters’ readers himself. If this isn’t enough, Mannix has his own issues to deal with too as Lockheed Martin attempts to coerce the ‘fixer’ into leaving the film business for a high-paying executive position at the aviation company.

Given their impressive filmography, any new Coen brothers picture comes with a high degree of promise, and in this regard Hail, Caesar! doesn’t quite live up to the duo’s already trusted name. Before we get onto the flick’s more questionable elements, Hail, Caesar! defiantly looks like a superstar thanks to prolific cinematographer Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men (2007), and costume designer Mary Zophres, Catch Me If You Can (2002), who masterfully re-create some of Hollywood’s Eisenhower-era styles, all with an unusual Coen brothers twist. You see, each of the subplots in this zany lark allows filmmakers the opportunity to play with a different genre of classic Hollywood: from Westerns, to musicals to extravagant three-strip Technicolor spectacles (styles that today’s moviegoers sadly care little about). An elaborate song-and-dance number, which features a Gene Kelly-type actor named Burt Gurney (a scene stealing Channing Tatum), tap dancing with a bunch of sailors in a bar is tremendous fun — if only the writing had lived up to such splendid heights.

Johansson brings classic glamor back to the big screen!
Johansson brings classic glamor back to the big screen!

In terms of narrative Hail, Caesar! touches on the Coen’s usual themes of religion and philosophy, along with Red Scare communism (seeing as this was the McCarthyism period), whilst giving viewers an inside look into Hollywood’s bleaker bottom line, illustrating the fact that behind all the glitz and glamor, something darker is afoot. More scattershot than their previous efforts, the Coen’s screenplay feels very unfocused here, lacking a central conflict to tie things together, its multiple storylines failing to merge into a compelling whole. The stakes aren’t high enough either, seeing as Clooney’s Whitlock doesn’t seem too phased that he’s been captured; if he doesn’t care, why should we? In fairness, Hail, Caesar! has its high points — a scene where Mannix attempts to procure a sign-off from a bunch of religious leaders (a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi and an evangelical minister) on the studio’s depiction of Christ in their upcoming big-budget biblical juggernaut makes for an inspired skit, as does a sequence where Fiennes’ acclaimed European director attempts to get a bewildered Hobie Doyle to say ‘Would that it t’were so simple’ — but the laughs are too infrequent and widely spaced. Sure, once the curtain closes viewers might remember certain scenes, fun film-within-a-film moments or their favorite cameo, but these little flashes aren’t enough save the picture from its long patches of dullness.

In the same way, the film’s A-grade lineup (some of whom only pop by momentarily before we’re thrown into the next decorated set piece) seem as though they’re all vying for precious screen time; with the exception of say, Brolin, most cast members probably clock in less time on screen than about ten or so minutes. A missed opportunity if you ask me. Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading (2008), at least gets a memorable role as a chain-smoking Margaret Booth-type editor C.C. Calhoun, while poor old Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), shows his face for a mere forty-three wasted seconds as a surety agent who works with the studio — why’s his mug on the poster again?

Cowboys and parlor rooms clearly don't mix.
Cowboys and parlor rooms clearly don’t mix.

Contrary to its title Hail, Caesar! is not about Clooney’s character, instead it focuses on Mannix and the many dilemmas he must patch up — Clooney’s abduction being just one of many — the aforementioned perhaps referring to the unwarranted worship of the ‘exploitative’ but well-oiled mass-media machine. Scraping by thanks to the strength of a few great gags and some excellent technical aspects, Hail, Caesar! is a flat, mostly sluggish satire that pays warm homage to the early days of cinema. Seeing as this is a Coen brothers film however, I expected a little more, I dunno, oomph. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ More like a light applause.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Hail, Caesar! is released through Universal Pictures Australia