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Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Premise: Set in the 1950s, Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must keep various productions afloat and placate temperamental actors and filmmakers while dealing with the kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney).

What Works: Hail, Caesar! takes place during the Hollywood studio era when the production of movies was run like a factory and Hollywood executives micromanaged the lives of their contracted players, down to arranging who the actors associated with on a social level. This film is both a tribute to Old Hollywood and a critique of it and the Coens take obvious joy in staging simulacrums of classic movies. Hail, Caesar! features several actors playing stand-ins for famous movie stars. Josh Brolin plays Capitol Pictures executive Eddie Mannix, a fictionalized version of the real life MGM studio executive. Channing Tatum plays musical star Burt Gurney who is clearly a stand-in for Gene Kelly while George Clooney is cast as Baird Whitlock, a prestigious performer who recalls Richard Burton. The cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams lookalike, and Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a Slim Pickens-like star of westerns. Tilda Swinton also appears in dual roles as Hollywood gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker who recall press figures of the period like Hedda Hopper. Hail, Caesar! is about filmmaking as an industrial process and the Coen’s look on this period with a certain amount of fondness while examining the period through their characteristically cynical lens. This movie is an economic metaphor in which the actors live and work under an exploitative industrial system. The movie recreates the Old Hollywood look while critiquing the industrial machinery behind it and having a caustic laugh at its expense.

What Doesn’t: Enjoyment of Hail, Caesar! will depend upon the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of Old Hollywood. Viewers who are familiar with titles like On the Town and The Robe will probably get a kick out of Hail, Caesar! but the average viewer is more likely to be bewildered by it. The Coens have never cared much about narrative cohesion; their films are less about plot—if any—and much more about the characters and their relationships. This is true of some of the Coen’s best work like The Big Lebowski but it’s especially true of many of their worst films like Burn After Reading and the overrated No Country for Old Men. Hail, Caesar! ranks somewhere in the middle of their filmography. The picture comes across as a series of loosely connected vignettes and while some of these segments are really well done they don’t form a coherent whole. This movie suffers because it emulates a more traditional narrative style, which the Coens are perfectly capable of doing, but it doesn’t deliver a fully formed story. Hail, Caesar! is primarily about studio chief Eddie Mannix as he tries to keep various plates spinning in the form of troubled movie stars and costly filmmaking productions. At the same time Mannix is courted by a representative of Lockheed, a defense contractor that wants him for an executive position. The drama of the movie hinges upon Mannix keeping these productions afloat and whether or not he will take the new job. But there’s very little drama in any of this; nothing concrete is at stake and when Mannix finally makes his decision neither the character nor the audience have reached an epiphany. The same is true of all of the subplots; none of these other storylines are resolved in a satisfying way and several of them are dropped altogether. The movie is wacky but it’s also very self-indulgent in a way that’s not very satisfying for the audience.

Bottom Line: Hail, Caesar! has some great stuff in it, especially as a show business satire, and fans of the Coens and of Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s are primed to get something out of it. But the movie is as aloof and self-indulgent as anything the Coen Brothers have ever made.

Episode: #582 (February 14, 2016)