Hollywood scandals today are child’s play compared to this. Academy Award nominees Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Academy Award winner George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum star in Hail, Caesar!
Cast of Characters:
Eddie Mannix – Josh Brolin
Baird Whitlock – George Clooney
Hobie Doyle – Alden Ehrenreich
Laurence Laurentz – Ralph Fiennes
Joseph Silverman – Jonah Hill
DeeAnna Moran – Scarlett Johansson
C.C. Calhoun – Frances McDormand
Thora Thacker/Thessaly Thacker – Tilda Swinton
Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum
Director – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Screenplay – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Producer – Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Back in the ’50s, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works as both head of production for Capitol Pictures and the studio’s “fixer” to keep all scandalous behavior of its stars from the press. His most problematic fix comes when, while shooting their major production, Hail, Caesar!, an epic set in ancient Rome, their star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is unwittingly drugged by an extra during a scene and then subsequently abducted after passing out. Mannix soon receives a ransom note from a group calling itself “The Future” that demands $100,000.
The reasoning behind the who, what, why and where of Whitlock’s kidnapping are a mystery, but Mannix is determined to find his star and bring things back to normal, especially with twin sisters and rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) trying to dig up answers for their latest scoop.
Hail, Caesar! is Joel and Ethan Coen’s love letter to cinema, in specific the “prestige picture” era of Hollywood that gave us such epics as The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Ben-Hur, the latter being the obvious comparison to the Coens’ film within their film, Hail, Caesar! It also serves as an homage to some of their own works, patching together the studio setting of Golden Age Hollywood from Barton Fink with the screwball quirkiness of The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading.
Of course, paying homage to your own films might seem a little self-indulgent, but when you have four Oscars on your mantle, then you’ve earned that right.
Though Coen-esque cleverness, deadpan wit and existential themes abound throughout Hail, Caesar!, some might find themselves disappointed by the sibling filmmakers’ lighter approach. The satire doesn’t quite have the bite that they provided to Barton Fink, and ultimately, this film will probably go down appealing to either the die-hard fans of the Coen brothers or those that prefer their lighter works such as Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the aforementioned The Hudsucker Proxy as opposed to their more brutal efforts like Blood Simple, Fargo and No Country for Old Men (though, as a side note, their effective handling of such various styles does show the immense versatility they possess as filmmakers).
Still, the Coens taking a break from being as deep and scathing as they can be doesn’t mean they’re just kicking back and phoning in a frivolous project. The breezy, goofy vibe fits their setting of ’50s era Hollywood like a glove, and between their first-rate production design team and legendary, go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins, they go to great, detailed lengths in recreating the look of vintage Hollywood, be it Scarlett Johansson’s spot-on Esther Williams impression, a tap-dancing Channing Tatum’s channeling of Gene Kelly (which includes a funny song number titled “No Dames”, where the gay subtext becomes more overtly obvious as the song plays out) and the staging of Hail, Caesar! and other films within their film to resemble the epics of the period.
Much like Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino, the Coens have earned the clout to pick whoever they desire for their films and assemble together a fantastic all-star cast of marquee names, among them a perfectly cast Josh Brolin as the no-nonsense Eddie Mannix (whose meeting with a group of religious leaders to make sure the picture isn’t offensive is pure Coen comedy) and George Clooney, who drops the rigid leading man act for a refreshingly hammed-up turn as the vainglorious star of Hail, Caesar! Even those with less screen time – Wayne Knight as a devious Hail, Caesar! extra, Tilda Swinton in a duel role as twin gossip columnists and Jonah Hill in a funny cameo appearance – all make the most of their time.
Not that it should be a surprise that every actor, in both small and large roles, are required to bring their A-game on the Coens’ set.
Despite the A-list cast, it’s actually the least known of them all, Alden Ehrenreich, who steals the show as Hobie Doyle, the “aw-shucks” Western actor who’s endearing ineptitude in the face of Hollywood cynicism, along with his scenes opposite Ralph Fiennes as his director, serve as some of the best moments of the film. Hopefully, there’s more to come from him ’cause amid a cast full of already-made stars, Ehrenreich is a star in the making here.
Hail, Caesar! won’t go down as one of the Coen brothers’ best, and it’s certainly more lightweight than what we’re used to seeing from them. But thanks to the Coens’ trademark brand of cleverness, some strong period detail and a great cast, Hail, Caesar! works as a light but effective homage to the Hollywood of yesteryear, one that is crafted with genuine affection by the Oscar-winning duo. It may be second-tier Coen brothers, but second-tier Coen brothers is still pretty good if you ask me.
I give Hail, Caesar! a B+ (★★★).