Hail, Joel Coen! Hail, Ethan Coen! Hail, the Coen brothers! Hail the Coen brothers not because their newest film, Hail, Caesar!, is a masterful work of art that captures the most illusive depths of the human experience. Hail the Coen brothers because they, unlike so many other directors, especially those who receive wide critical and cult acclaim, have the rare ability to change. Hail, Caesar! is not the brothers’ best work, though it is playful, funny, and wonderfully simple; what it offers is something far different from the cynicism of Inside Llewyn Davis or even the comical intensity of The Big Lebowski. This is what makes the Coen brothers great: their generosity. They constantly give us something fresh and new.
In many ways, Hail, Caesar! pays homage to the past. Ed Mannix (Josh Brolin), a true, 1950s Old Hollywood movie man, runs Capitol Pictures. The movie follows a day in his life as he solves movie stars’ minor and major problems, all while weighing the tempting option to take a more lucrative, less hectic job. The seminal problem Mannix must solve, the one highlighted by the movie’s trailer, is that the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped for ransom. Despite the magnitude of this nightmare, Mannix gives almost equal attention to seemingly trivial studio problems: a squabbling director (Ralph Fiennes) or a movie star pregnant out of wedlock (Scarlett Johansson), for instance.
Several notable scenes focus on the sets of Old Hollywood films produced by studios that employed stables of actors, directors, and writers to churn out dozens of films. This cinematic era holds a mystic place in the Coen brothers’ minds. The scenes that focus on the old method of production often feature complex choreography and orchestration, and are some of the most intricate and enjoyable of the film. They serve as a lens into the labor that goes into movie production, but more importantly they remind us of the kind of giddy joy film can produce. And this is really what the movie is all about: film–great film–can be outrageously fun.
Granted the film’s plot doesn’t particularly demand much of the audience. And there are more caricatures than characters. With Mannix’s attention—and thus our own attention—so widely diverted, it’s difficult to see very deep into the characters’ personalities. This limited depth is no fault of the actors, all of whom are charismatic and animated. It is the intent of the directors: the simple plot and flat characters exist primarily to let them have their fun.
The movie has its bits of absurdity and comical nihilism, a pairing that seems more and more to be the directorial stamp of a Coen brothers’ film. And let’s not forget the Coen brothers’ signature witty dialogue. But much of Hail, Caesar!’s humor derives from the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of Hollywood, a universe that the movie satirizes and yet mimics. For example, it mocks the communist screenwriters of the fifties who live extremely well while complaining that the studios take all the money—who bemoan the villainous lords of the means of production, but tell Baird Whitlock, “You can’t share in your own ransom; that would be unethical.” But all film, the Coen brothers tell us, is hypocritical, or at least contradictory.
Movies are at once frivolous and demanding; easy to consume, but difficult to understand; fun to conceive, but difficult to construct. As Mannix struggles to decide whether or not to stay in film, we see, to some degree, the Coen brothers confronting the same struggle. Why do Mannix or the Coen brothers torment themselves with the outlandish problems of outlandish personalities, all for the sake of making something that might tenuously be described as art, but more appropriately as entertainment? Their best answer, one whose logic only holds water in the movie business, is that it just feels right. And in the case of Hail, Caesar!, it feels right to me, too.
Grade: A-. Fun, enjoyable, and straightforward: that’s a lot more than we get from most movies, even the “serious” ones.