Much like its directors Joel and Ethan Coen, their latest movie, Hail, Caesar! is a mess of juxtapositions and contradictions. The filmmaking duo have been making films for over thirty years, worked with the top talent, and won Oscars, and yet they’ve never been part of the constantly evolving system. They make the movies they want to make, they don’t do franchise pictures, and everything they do is singularly their voice and vision during a time when corporate interests have tried to homogenize everything to appeal to the widest audience possible. They’re consistent outliers, beloved by critics, occasionally embraced by the public, and forging on regardless.
Their new movie comes at another turning point for Hollywood—the decline of movies and the rise of the Golden Age of Television—and so they cannily turn their eye towards the Golden Age of Cinema, and although Hail, Caesar! can be a messy movie, it’s meant to show the lovable mess of Hollywood that we all embrace. Rather than an unquestioningly love letter like The Artist (a nice movie that has its place), Hail, Caesar! jumps into wildness of old Hollywood with its scandals, egos, and overall absurdity that’s all meant to serve the awe and power of motion pictures.
Set during the 1950s at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio that sucked the life out of Barton Fink), Hail, Caesar! follows a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who must spend his time putting out various fires. On this particular day, he’s moving cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) out of his depth to a prestige drama, trying to cover up the pregnancy of starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and at the top of the list is rescuing Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is leading the studio’s epic, Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ, and been kidnapped by an organization known as “The Future.” Between these jobs, Mannix is considering leaving pictures altogether and fleeing to the relative safety of a job with Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile, Baird begins to have an understanding with his kidnappers’ point of view.
Staying on top of Hail, Caesar! is like trying to stay on top of a ball that’s constantly moving forward. It’s not that the film is ever confusing or hard to follow, but it’s that the world is always reminding you of topsy-turvy relationships. From the very beginning, we have Mannix confessing to his priest that he lies to his wife, but then smacking around an actress who’s making fetish porn on the side. It’s a movie that’s trying to make a film about uplift, but when Mannix is watching the dailies, the movie drops in a card reading, “Divine Presence to Be Shot”.
The religion angle is one of the most fascinating aspects of Hail, Caesar!, and the Coens position movies as their god within the framework of the Ben-Hur-style epic that’s being made at Capitol all the way down to an unforgettable, screwball style conversation between Mannix and four religious leaders. The movies can be a transcendent experience, but, like any religion, it’s run by men, and given over to bickering, and the presence of faith is key to both endeavors. The movie goes so far to even have a character exclaim, “People don’t want facts! They want to believe!”
As Hail, Caesar! rambles along, it’s most reminiscent of the Coens’ 2008 film Burn After Reading but with Hollywood shenanigans instead of spycraft. Both are ensemble pictures with a branching structure rather than plot-driven vehicles with a single protagonist. Hail, Caesar! will happily meander off to a scene that has nothing to do with Baird’s kidnapping—ostensibly the film’s biggest conflict—and while that would read as sloppy in other movies, it better puts us in the unwieldy world Mannix inhabits daily. We need to be caught up in the electricity of the pictures, and if everything were neat and orderly, the movie wouldn’t be a reflection of Mannix’s experiences. We need to not only feel the chaos and absurdity, but also the delight like the show-stopping “No Dames” dance sequence.
The energy that runs through “No Dames” extends throughout the movie. It’s in the Busby Berkeley, synchronized swimming number featuring DeeAnna as a mermaid. It’s in the pompousness of prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). It’s in the bit parts played by Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Jonah Hill. And it’s certainly in Ehrenreich’s performance, which I think we’ll still be talking about when 2016 comes to a close. He’s so sweet and naïve, and he easily joins the ranks of the Coens’ affable bozos.
Even though Hail, Caesar! can be a bit sprawling, it’s very tight in its message and acknowledging not only classic Hollywood, but where that Hollywood of old stands in contrast to today. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say that there’s a couple of scenes where the Coens fully acknowledge that their peers are moving to television, and they ponder what that kind of exodus means for the god of cinema. While the Coen Brothers don’t show any signs of abandoning movies, Hail, Caesar! shows Hollywood on a precipice, and openly wondering if its followers will remain faithful.