Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the Coen brothers, playfully represents Hollywood during the Golden studio system, with a tongue-in-cheek humor about the machinations of star making without steering into full-blown spoof.
The film centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive at Capital Pictures, whose job consists of the behind the scenes deals and crisis management that make the seemingly effortless glamour of the movies run like a well-oiled machine. Or at least look like it. It’s a tough job, but on top of that he’s trying to quit smoking and be home for his family. During the course of the story, Mannix has two big problems to solve. First, he’s being courted for a new job in aviation and he doesn’t know if he should take it. Second, the star of Hail, Caesar!, Capital’s big prestige picture of the year, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by a bunch of Communist writers calling themselves “The Future.” Mannix has to find Baird so the film can finish production on time, all while keeping the press from finding out, reinventing the career of cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and spinning the unplanned pregnancy of DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).
Hail, Caesar! is a mad-cap adventure on par with the Coen brothers’ other films. What makes this one really fun, however, is the way that it pays homage to old Hollywood without being sentimental about it. The film is peppered with beautiful scenes that could stand on their own, but are punctuated by a switch back to reality that dulls the shine, but brings the humor. For example, Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran has an over-the-top synchronized swimming number that ends abruptly when she has to be pulled out of her mermaid “butt” because of pregnancy-related discomfort. Later, Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney has a musical number as a tap-dancing sailor that, if it weren’t for the raunchy humor, would be at home in a Gene Kelly movie. In another scene, a production assistant asks a crucified actor, playing Jesus in Hail, Caesar! if he gets the hot or boxed breakfast. Throughout the film, the artistry of the movies is contrasted with the hard work and questionable personalities behind them. It’s true to the unseemly parts of the studio system without coming out as jaded or disenchanted.
The representation of old Hollywood aesthetics is brought about through gorgeous attention to detail. In an ensemble scene for Hail, Caesar!, the costumes are in colors too bright to be realistic, recreating the look of Technicolor movies. The set dressings look like the facsimiles that would be used on a set, not the real thing. Wardrobe, makeup, sets on the backlot, logos, every detail in the film recreates a fantasy version of Hollywood, turned up just a notch.
Of course, the film also benefits from a great cast of actors, many of whom have a classic beauty that makes them a shoe-in to play stars. It’s no big stretch to believe Scarlett Johansson as an actress beloved for her innocence (even if it’s a farce), or Channing Tatum as a musical star, or George Clooney as a major star who pals around with Clark Gable, or Ralph Fiennes as a sophisticated director. Meanwhile, Frances McDormand has a fun scene as film editor C.C. Calhoun, who accidentally demonstrates the hazards of the old fashioned editing system. Tilda Swinton plays twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker to grating perfection. Veronica Osorio has an adorable part as Latina starlet Carlotta Valdez. For me, Alden Ehrenreich really steals the show. As a Western actor who is suddenly thrown into a highbrow drama, his struggle to deliver lines, or even just walk, with any poise at all reminds me of the great gag from Singin’ in the Rain when Lina Lamont finally speaks. His character, however, is a lot more sympathetic and Ehrenreich charmingly delivers a nuanced performance of what could have easily been a caricature.
Hail, Caesar! is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long time. As a lover of classic films, I really enjoyed its depiction of the studio system, as well as the well-rounded, compelling characters. It’s a great screenplay beautifully executed. 4/5 stars
If you like Hail, Caesar!, you might also enjoy the podcast You Must Remember This, which tells the “lost or forgotten stories” of Hollywood. Hail, Caesar! was written, directed, and produced by Ethan and Joel Coen. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
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