Hail, Caesar! Review

Hannah Long, News Editor • hglong16@ehc.edu

George Clooney.jpg

Courtesy of Hail, Caesar! Facebook Page

Hail, Caesar! is weird. It’s a testament to Joel and Ethan Coens’ influence in Hollywood that they could bring a film this weird to the big screen. The film doesn’t quite conform to any genre, slipping and sliding between different tones and tropes in a way which confounds expectations and prevents the whole product from quite meshing.

The first scene introduces studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) confessing to a bored priest that he’s broken his promise to quit smoking. This subtle comedy melds into broad slapstick as we jump to the set of a lavish swordand-sandals drama where buffoonish leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and abducted by a pair of extras. Meanwhile, a
bratty starlet (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t want to marry “a third louse,” but she can’t be known to be a single mother.

Then there are twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) obsessed with an old scandal, a pudgy notary who helps A-lister faux pas vanish (Jonah Hill), a stressed British auteur director (Ralph Fiennes), a slovenly editor (Frances McDormand), and a cheery cowboy (a wonderful Alden Ehrenreich).

Trailers for the film focus on the kidnapping, but the film itself is far more concerned with the life of Eddie Mannix, who spends his days preserving the public image of Capitol Studios’ stars. Throughout the film, he agonizes over whether to continue as a fixer or drop it all to go work for the Lockheed Corporation. Using their trademark understated absurdity, the Coens frame his struggle in epic, soul-searching terms. The fixer job looms in Mannix’s imagination like a religious vocation. Will he betray the faith? (Glenn Kelly notes that the Lockheed representative is “the devil because he always offers Eddie a cigarette when they meet.”)

From other directors, this gambit might come off as smug and sanctimonious, but the Coens mix an earnest celebration of Tinseltown with a candid look at the foibles of the people behind the scenes. After all, dealing with those foibles is Eddie Mannix’s job. The studio weaves “dreams”—he has to make sure real life lives up.

This subtle, satirical edge is the funniest part of the movie, but it’s also probably too subtle to play well with a mass audience. Hail, Caesar!’s greatest moments are its smallest—Fiennes’ eloquent wince as he listens to an actor butcher a scene, Brolin’s quick mental gear shifts as he attempts to pacify four religious leaders at once, Swinton’s miniscule smirk of relish as she reveals a sordid secret. The film makes little nudges to the audience to observe the hypocrisy. It’s hardly politicians moonlighting as Klan members, like in O Brother Where Art Thou.

And yet, the film’s tribute to the industry is earnest. There’s a rollicking scene in which Channing Tatum becomes the next Gene Kelly, and while it’s undercut by Whitlock’s faulty memory, the actor’s penitent speech at the foot of the cross does more tribute to Biblical epics than most of them deserved. The film is chockful of classic Hollywood staples—there’s a briefcase (the preferred McGuffin), an elderly thespian with a lisp, an actor with a corny (and delightful) accent trying to break into serious drama, a scandal, big dance numbers, and communism.

Speaking of communism, the Coens have tremendous fun subverting both McCarthyist terrors and progressive myths. The Hail, Caesar! communists are neither dastardly plotters nor noble representatives of the proletariat. Instead, they’re fusty, entitled old professors who like to gripe about inequality and spout high-minded theories from the comfort of a Malibu villa. In other words, it’s a pretty accurate portrait of such armchair economists.

Its satire of religion is just as hilarious, as the focus
group for one of Mannix’s films devolves into a theological debate about the nature of Christ. (“God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor,” protests a rabbi, as the Christians get lost trying to explain the Trinity). But the film is also a bit sympathetic to both ideologies, respecting Mannix’s faith and hinting at the dark side of the studio’s complete control of its actors (Mannix’s final speech to Baird could be read as either good or bad.)

Hail, Caesar! has so many subplots it requires Dickensian planning to bring them all together. Instead, the Coens loosely relate them with strands of Hollywood gossip. It’s not enough, and leaves the film feeling disjointed and anticlimactic. But its thoughtful side, comparing storytelling to a vocation, gives the film a surprising poignancy.

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