Movie Review: ‘Hail Caesar’
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, and Ralph Fiennes
Plot: A studio problem solver goes into crisis mode when the superstar lead of his newest tentpole picture goes missing.
A Coen brothers drama almost always works the first time. A Coen brothers comedy usually needs more than one viewing. They are strange. They aren’t full of classic setup-payoff jokes. They are structured more like drama, based on a singular theme or idea, and the story radiates from that moment, buried under fatalistic and sometimes hypocritical circumstance, leaving a lot to unpack. It’s not so easy to unpack a comedy when you are so tuned in to just sitting back and laughing. However, that is the fun of the Coen brothers, except so far I have only seen the movie once.
With Hail, Caesar! they cap their numbskull trilogy, along with other Clooney vehicles O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty. It stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, head of studio operations, which makes him half a producer and half hired muscle. His most anticipated upcoming film is “Hail Caesar: Story of the Christ,” about a Roman soldier, played by George Clooney’s oafish Baird Whitlock, who changes his ways after a run in with Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Baird has gone missing, and Mannix has to find him before they have to shut down production. On top of that, he has an unmarried musical star with an unplanned pregnancy and no husband on the horizon, an up-and-coming Western star in over his head with a talky British drama he agreed to do, and a pair of twin tabloid journos who keep hitting him up for exclusives and comments on rumors (both played hysterically by Tilda Swinton).
It is a soft-colored period piece farce, not unlike Ladykillers, rather than an off-beat noir it implies to be. It relies on eccentric old-timey performances and some strategically placed slapstick to get a rise out of classic Hollywood, a time period it never is sure if it wants to lambaste or pay homage to. This schizophrenic viewpoint seems to be on purpose, although it doesn’t always make for a good watch. The movie, at its core, is about conflicted ideologies. Mannix suffers the whole movie. Everyday, he confesses the sins he commits while running the studio, mostly lying, and desperately trying to justify continuing his role at the studio. The movie’s one sure-fire moment of hilarity involves a meeting of religious minds (from different religions of course) that Mannix puts together to voice concerns and praise for the portrayal of Christ that plays out like an Abbott and Costello routine of semantic misinterpretations. Even the spectre of Red Scare style Communism that loomed over 1950s Hollywood is there in full overt effect.
There still seems like so much to unpack with Hail, Caesar! It is the kind of movie that elevates above its quality and keeps you thinking for days after. I think the true meaning lies with its breakout performance from Alden Ehrenreich. He plays the previously mentioned Western star, Hobie Doyle, hired to star in a prestigious dialog-heavy drama that he is not quite ready for. He is charmingly dim-witted with his over-the-top Texas drawl. Leading up to the film, I always assumed Clooney was the titular numbskull as he was in the two previous numbskull trilogy films, but now I think it might be Hobie Doyle this time. His numbskull behavior insulates him from all the patronizing and pretentiousness that leads to all the semantic bullshit diatribes masquerading as real debate, thus making a numbskull of everyone else but Hobie, circling back to that schizophrenic viewpoint I previously mentioned. Does any of that make sense? I have no idea, but that is sort of the awesomeness of the Coens.