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Non-Review Review: Hail, Caesar!

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Hail, Caesar! is little more than an excuse for the Coen Brothers to adventure through classic Hollywood; a series of fantastic scenes and sequences tied together more by central theme than by a linear plot. It is telling how many performers essentially find themselves relegated to only a single scene or two, with performers like Scarlett Johannessen, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Alison Pill, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum effectively (and occasionally literally) dancing around the film than weaving through it.

In many respects, this simply shouldn’t work. On paper – and perhaps on reflection – Hail, Caesar! plays like an anthology of great little scenes; a collection of short films all linked by the classic Hollywood aesthetic more than a single unifying narrative. The actual substance of the film is quite removed from the story promised by the trailers, which seem to tease “an old-timey movie Ocean’s Eleven with actors teaming up to rescue a kidnapped George Clooney.” It spoils nothing to reveal that the movie is most definitely not about that.

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Although the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock is a central thread, Hail, Caesar! plays more like a day in the life of Hollywood studio fixer Eddie Mannix. Mannix is (very) loosely based on the real studio executive (and notorious “fixer”) of the same name, although it seems quite unlikely that he ever had a day quite as bizarre as that presented here. The Coen Brothers have a great deal of fun incorporating classic Hollywood iconography into their film, both as movies within the movie and then in a more meta-fictional manner towards the climax.

However, Hail, Caesar! is tied together through its recurring humanism. The movie opens with Mannix taking confession for his sins, part of a daily ritual. One of the films featured is an old-school biblical epic. Complex economic theories are woven through the narrative, and the film repeatedly touches upon the awkward relationship that exists between Capitol Pictures and its performers. Although Hail, Caesar! is too shrewd to propose easy answers to its complex web of character interactions, it does tease some insightful questions. And features some great set pieces.

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Hail, Caesar! is set at some ambiguous point between the late forties and the early fifties. Bikini Atoll is included at one point as a frame of reference, while the Cold War bubbles behind the scenes. This is very much the Golden Age of Hollywood, but very clearly the end of the Golden Age. Hail, Caesar! teases a world that was once quite simple, with actors being told where to stand and where to go, even how to pronounce the word “t’were.” However, it hints that a change is coming; that things are about to become more complex.

That complexity is rendered through absurdity. When movie star Baird Whitlock is kidnapped from the set of his latest biblical epic, the only clue that Eddie Mannix has to go on is the suggestion that the threat comes from “the Future.” Over the course of the film, Mannix finds himself weighing a job offer from the company Lockhead, with an ominous suggestion that the future of the movie industry might not be as stable and secure as it once was. Mannix is presented with a photograph of a nuclear detonation as the face of the future.

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The Red Scare ripples through Hollywood. One of the best recurring gags of Hail, Caesar! is the way that the production plays the threat of communism in Hollywood ridiculously straight. Cabals of movie writers host “study groups” to discuss Marxist theory, slipping none-too-subtle socialist allegories into their scripts. Soviet agents appear to be operating on American soil, organising sinister plots to subvert and undermine the lawful authority of the United States. There are points where Hail, Caesar! gleefully plays as Joe McCarthy’s worst nightmare.

The movie couches its socialism in larger political and economic questions about the distribution of wealth and the role of the individual within the larger system. It is no coincidence that Mannix works for a studio named “Capitol Pictures”, marking him as a champion of capitol-ism. (Later, Baird reflects on the power of Karl Marx’s Kapitol, “with a K.”) Repeatedly throughout the film, Mannix helps the studio reduce his performers and staff to little more than economic commodities shuffled around the board.

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Reflecting the realities of the old studio system, Mannix considers trading actors to other studios like chattel and makes it clear that actors are just raw materials that can be shaped to fit whatever mould is necessary. When a lavish period melodrama runs behind schedule, Mannix slots the most convenient actor into the role; it doesn’t matter that Hobie Doyle is a singing cowboy and that the role requires a wry upper-crust performance. Mannix obsesses with the image rights of female performers like DeeAnna Moran and Carlotta Valdez.

(Indeed, the movie makes its point strongest with introduction of Joseph Silverman, who is described as “a professional person.” Silverman is a working stiff who is at the disposal of the studio, with Mannix explaining that he is employed whenever the studio requires somebody who meets “the legal standards of personhood.” Silverman fills whatever role is necessary outside the silver screen, taking the rap for contract players who drink-drive or serving as a party on legal documents or participating in various questionable schemes.)

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Hail, Caesar! is not overtly political. It could be argued that the Coen Brothers are relatively apolitical filmmakers, although certain “small-c” conservative values are woven through their work. The duo are repeatedly and consistently skeptical of any large-scale organisation, seemingly wary of mankind’s attempts to organise itself into something more productive or efficient. The Coen Brothers gravitate towards quirky outsiders and eccentric individuals, suggesting that meaningful interpersonal connection might just be the best possible outcome.

This is certainly borne out in Hail, Caesar! The film never really picks a side between the two extremes presented. The rampantly capitalism studio system is presented as absurd and (occasionally literally) abusive, while the movie’s communist characters are (occasionally literally) armchair socialists. The movie consciously and repeatedly mocks the radical rhetoric of the communist characters, whether the ineffectiveness of the writers or the struggle of one actor to relate Marxist theory back to his own personal experiences.

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Instead, Hail, Caesar! seems to suggest that the closest thing to a solution to these problems is to be found on a personal level. Eddie Mannix has to decide whether he is content doing his work, rather than trying to weigh the morality of the work itself. Towards the end of the film, two recurring characters stumble into interpersonal connections with relative strangers; one finds love in a very cynical legal scheme, while another strikes up a genuinely touching conversation with a date assigned by the studio.

In both cases, these connections are made to people introduced to them by Eddie Mannix and the studio system. The implication seems to be that it is pointless and exhausting to try to figure out the larger moral and philosophical framework of the universe, but that is the chance to find meaning in something more intimate and smaller. The big questions constantly trip characters up, it is the smaller moments of humanity that seem to provide the closest that any of these characters get to satisfaction.

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At the same time, this is probably reading too much into Hail, Caesar! The film is a joy from beginning to end, with the Coen Brothers effectively stitching together a series of classic Hollywood throwbacks and references all meditating on recurring themes. Hail, Caesar! might not be entirely comfortable with the studio system, but it harbours a deep affection for the aesthetics of the era. Hail, Caesar! adventures through a variety of classic film genres, playing as a series of extended riffs and jokes.

Some of these sequences are played relatively straight, with DeeAnna Moran staging an elaborate water-themed song and dance that looks absolutely stunning or Hobie Doyle cast as a singing cowboy. At other points, the film embraces slapstick absurdity, riffing on old homour stand-bys like the character who refuses to drink from a poisoned chalice or the homoeroticism of those old sailor musicals. These set pieces work remarkably well, with the Coen Brothers luxuriating in these extended riffs.

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Hail, Caesar! delightfully skirts high- and low-brow comedy. It is a film littered with esoteric references to classic Hollywood, but which makes repeated reference to how impractical it must be to try to sit down while carrying a sword or to edit a film while wearing a scarf. The film is utterly unapologetic in its quirkiness, as viewers have come to expect from Coen Brothers comedies. While Hail, Caesar! does not necessarily feature the tightest plotting of a Coen Brothers film, it does feature some of the best gags.

The film is worth the price of admission for the “No Dames” musical set piece alone, and the scene in which British melodrama director Laurence Laurentz attempts to teach Hobie Doyle to articular the line “t’would that it t’were so simple” is one of the comedy highlights of the past year. Towards the climax of the film, the Coen Brothers rather wryly allow the classic Hollywood aesthetic to seep through the studio backlot and into the film itself; there are points at which Hail, Caesar! teases that it might become one of the movies it parodies.

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The Coen Brothers have drawn together a fantastic cast. Josh Brolin provides the anchor holding the film together as Eddie Mannix, the universe’s straight man who can handle whatever the world might choose to throw at him. The rest of the performers do great work, but Alden Ehrenreich is the cast standout bringing doe-eyed innocence to the role of western performer Hobie Doyle. Indeed, the Coen Brothers seem to recognise Ehrenreich’s magnetism; in many respects, Doyle is the film’s most developed secondary character.

The production on the film is absolutely fantastic, particularly considering the relatively small budget. It is incredible that Hail, Caesar! can afford to create as much of the classic Hollywood aesthetic as it does, with particular credit going to the production design team, the hair and make-up crew, and the costumers. Indeed, Emily Beecham is made to look almost like a lost fifties starlet, so perfectly do the production team recreate the time in question. Hail, Caesar! looks amazing.

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Hail, Caesar! is a triumph. It is a series of hilarious jokes all meditating on strong central themes.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

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7 Responses

  1. Great review Darren.

    I enjoyed this film a lot, though I wonder how well it will work for viewers who aren’t as fond of the period and/or classic era cinema as I am (this has to be the epitome of a film lover’s film.) Certainly it was amazing to see it only a few days after seeing ‘Trumbo’.

    I have to agree that date subplot really was surprisingly sweet and Ehrenreich was pretty fantastic.

    • Thanks Ross!

      It is a delightfully odd and esoteric film, and you’re right. I wonder what my family might make of it, for example. But I did watch it with a room full of film nerds, and they seemed to love it.

  2. (Minor spoilers below)
    I very much enjoyed the movie and was glad to see it on the opening weekend, because it’s one of those movies where having an audience laugh along with you makes it much more fun than it would have been otherwise.

    I thought the date scene with Doyle and Carlotta was just perfect, and I was disappointed when the movie wrapped up without ever revisiting either character at the end. Speaking of which, when the credits rolled, my dad turned to me, laughing, and said “Wait, that’s it?!” It really did end very suddenly!

    • Oddly enough, as touching as the date sequence was, (minor spoilers) I was quietly waiting for the revelation that Hobie was gay before the whole “On Wings of Eagles” thing came into play. I was expecting that to play into the idea of Mannix managing his actors’ images and personas to the point of reducing them to commodities.

      But I liked the non-ending here much better than I did in some previous Coen Brothers efforts.

  3. Great review, it sure sounds like some mad cap fun.

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