It’s worth mentioning off the bat that most Coen brothers movies take a while to get used to. Almost all of them improve greatly on a second viewing, but can be alienating at the start. Fargo and The Big Lebowski, for two extreme examples, went from good to stone-cold-classic standing after I saw them a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. It’s no surprise then that Hail Caesar didn’t quite gel for me after one viewing. However, its alienating features have more in common with The Ladykillers than A Serious Man, which may bode poorly for its standings in the Coens pantheon.
Hail Caesar takes place in just-post-war Hollywood, where fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is juggling the problems of an entire studio on his back. The cast of supporting characters consists primarily of actors, including George Clooney’s suave nincompoop of a superstar (the unofficial fourth in his Idiot Trilogy), Scarlet Johansson’s brusque swimming film starlet, and Channing Tatum’s smiling dancer. Beyond the actors, there’s Frances McDormand as an editor, Jonah Hill as a professional extra of sorts, Ralph Fiennes as a director, Tilda Swinton as a reporter and her identical sister, and twelve familiar faces including Fred Melamed and David Krumholtz as a guild of politicized writers. It’s exactly as overstuffed as it sounds, and normally reliable talents (particularly Swinton) go full-ham to try to catch their minute in the spotlight. Some, like McDormand, have just one scene and make the most of it, but others like Johansson and Fiennes serve mostly as amusing distractions from the main action. It all feels quite disconnected, even if bits individually work.
Thankfully, the bits that work really work. It’s stuffed with memorable moments and images, and oftentimes is brutally funny. In diving into classic Hollywood cheese, Hail Caesar has its cake and eats it too. For example, in Tatum’s introductory scene it makes fun of old-school dance sequences by staging an effective old-school dance scenes. A running gag about eagles is effective throughout, and it when it goes very Very big, it always works.
Hail Caesar also continues the Coen’s obsession with religion, with its central (and titular) picture being a big-screen story of the Christ. Some of the side characters take on direct religious symbolism (Joseph, the apostles), which leaves its Jesus figure up in the air between two characters. Alden Ehrenreich has a star-making turn as cowboy actor drawn into a drama, whose youth and purity hint in that direction. But Mannix himself is the one carrying the sins of Hollywood, notably courting offers from Lockheed-Martin in a room draped in red. When he encounters McDormand’s editor, the fruits of his labour in Hollywood are laid bare. Like most of Hollywood and the movie itself, its pretty damn amusing, but not 100% satisfying.
Hail Caesar (2016)
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, and George Clooney
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)