If you weren’t sold on the trailer of the new Coen Brothers movie, Hail, Casear!, let me just say that the movie is about five other movies (within this movie) that aren’t necessarily great movies.
The year is 1951, and Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must contend with juggling lots of movies and stars and the headaches that accompany both, as well as the abduction of one of his leading men, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by some communists.
While Hail, Caesar! is an uproarious comedy that goes down like matinee popcorn, there is more going on here than there might seem (as usual with the Coen Brothers).
In the theatrical trailer, we see George Clooney forget one key word in his line. “Faith”. And that, to me, is what this picture is mainly about. It’s about our faith in believing the stories that Hollywood tells us – not just the stories within the movies, but the lies that studios tell us about the stars. There is also the faith that the stars have in the studios and those who run it. The faith communists placed in their nonsensical economic ideology. The faith Baird has in abductors – they sell “it” to him, whatever “it” is, and Baird is a movie star who wants to be liked by everyone so he is easily manipulated.
It is about Eddie’s faith in the business he is in and he is left having to make a choice between work that is easy and work that is rewarding. It’s about religious faith – the movie is bookended with scenes of Eddie, a devout Roman Catholic, in a confessional booth (he appears to go to confession daily with the most insignificant of things to confess – “I smoked two, maybe three cigarettes behind my wife’s back”). And, of course, the prestige picture Hail, Caesar! within the movie – the sort of religious spectacle studios used to churn out in that era.
My favourite of all cinematographers, the great Roger Deakins, and a team of highly proficient art directors riff on Old Hollywood form and style by creating the studio of our dreams, painstakingly recreating actual movie moments (Scarlett Johansson is unmistakably channeling an aquatic Esther Williams, and Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing brings to mind Gene Kelly), and in making this movie look like something from that era. Tilda Swinton is fantastic playing twin gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker – this has to be a callback to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
The real discovery here is Alden Ehrenreich in a star-making performance whose Hobie Doyle is the Roy Rogers counterpart. Hobie is the singing cowboy figure forced into becoming a “serious” actor for his first dramatic-starring role. I’m completely unaware of any real-life corollaries between Roy Rogers and Hobie Doyle, but Hobie is one of the most memorable characters the Coens have ever created. The film’s funniest moment involves Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz (the George Cukor conduit) directing Hobie in a period drama; needless to say, the oratory lesson does not go well.
Oh, and there’s Jonah Hill as the fall guy lawyer Joseph Silverman – he is the guy who meets the minimum requirements of personhood; if a movie star kills someone, they need not worry because Joseph will step in and accept responsibility. I’d love to see a feature-length film focusing on any of these wacko screwball side characters. If there’s a drawback to Hail, Caesar!, it is that there is an overabundance of outstanding characters, none of whom we get to spend sufficient time with.
Where does Hail, Caesar! rank in the Coen Brothers canon? I don’t think it’s an instant classic the way Fargo, No Country For Old Men, or Inside Llewyn Davis are. But, like The Big Lebowski, it could become something of a cult classic – a picture that was misunderstood upon initial release, but widely embraced as a masterwork years later. Based on what I saw in Hail, Caesar!, I can’t tell if the Coen Brothers hate the movies or love the movies. Or if they love the movies but hate the studio system. One of the reasons I love the movies is because every year (or two or three years), I get to see a Coen Brothers movie.