Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

by Chad Liffmann on February 5, 2016

A silly, subversive, colorful day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer — as only the Coens can envision.

Channing Tatum the singing, dancing sailor.

Channing Tatum the singing, dancing sailor.

Expectations were high for Hail, Caesar! the new film from the modern great American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen. Three years after their award-winning triple play of 2009’s A Serious Man, 2010’s True Grit, and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, the sparkling musical trailers for Hail, Caesar! began hitting the web, and suddenly Coen fever began spreading again. However, unlike the washed-out colors and quiet dramatic quality of the former titles, Hail, Caesar! seemed to promise bright colors, outlandish musical numbers, and an unbridled sense of fun. The question I found myself asking was — would Hail, Caesar! embrace the darkly comic bizarreness of early Coen films such as Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy, or the cynical chastisement of Hollywood in Barton Fink? Well, the answer is really ‘no’ to both. The most wonderful thing about Hail, Caesar! is that it has its own new brand of Coen humor, one of PG-13 lightweight, sarcastic and playful tones, but still filled to the brim with the filmmakers’ unparalleled attention to detail and love of subtle and not-so-subtle references.

Hail, Caesar! takes place in one day, circa 1951, when a Hollywood studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (based on an actual studio fixer of the same name) rushes in and out of the studio lot fixing an assortment of celebrity and production snafus. The film’s title is taken from the main Ben Hur-esque Roman epic being shot on the lot, starring leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped by a mysterious group, and Mannix sets out to find out who and get him back, meanwhile handling other smaller issues like meddling twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton playing both), a baby drama with crabby starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and recasting a young Western genre niche actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a refined period drama Merrily We Dance, directed by acclaimed artistic filmmaker Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). We follow Mannix through the course of his day as he works hard to ensure everything doesn’t fall apart.

Looking at the character names and fake film titles listed in the paragraph above, I’m hoping that you’re sensing a theme, if not a strength of the filmmakers. The Coens love to infuse small references and allusions to old Hollywood and even their own work. The studio Mannix works for is Capitol Pictures, the same studio from Barton Fink. Each film set is meticulously crafted to reflect the sets of post-war Hollywood. The costumes are incredible, and the song and dance numbers are choreographed with such finesse, and shot so beautifully by Roger Deakins, that one could easily imagine Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire doubling in for Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney.

And the script is phenomenal. Aside from a voice over that I felt was more a distraction than a worthy supplement to the tight structure of the film, the script is witty and at times genius. A few scenes in particular stand out among some of the funniest conversations in the Coen brothers’ filmography (I don’t want to spoil them, so just reach out to me later to see if we agree). It’s important to get your expectations in check because the script for Hail, Caesar! doesn’t go down the way you’d expect (if there are such assumptions possible to be made about a Coen Brothers film). Here, just when you think the Coens are going to take you down a deep insightful path, the film brings the story back to surface level with a quick absurd exchange or write-off. It’s a smart way in which the Coens are celebrating and poking fun of Hollywood of old…and yes, indirectly Hollywood of today, too.

As the trailers suggests, Hail, Caesar! boasts an all star cast. But that’s only the half of it. What the film really does is boast the all star writing/directing duo who manage to elicit great performances from each of their actors, whether its an extra or a top-billed star, and whether its using an hour of screen time or only thirty seconds. Hail, Coens!

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Hail, Caesar! is coming out in theaters Friday, Feb. 5th.

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