Over the last decade especially, the Coen Brothers’ output has swung steadily like a metronome; from bleak, lean thriller No Country For Old Men to the acidic comedy of Burn After Reading; the existential crisis of A Serious Man to the crowd pleasuring adventurism of True Grit; the melancholy of Inside Llewyn Davis to their latest effort, Hail, Caesar! – a classic and classy Hollywood comedy in which the studio system itself is greedily devoured.
Of the features listed above, which have roamed a varied spectrum, Hail, Caesar! is the most Coens-y Coens movie to have appeared, echoing many of their previous films and in many way feeling like something of a greatest hits package. So over here are their wry observations on the cadences of speech; over there is the hoary old ill-fated bag-full-of-money, round the corner is a dreamlike dance number, and everywhere you look are a resplendent variety of crazy faces and loony opinions. And underneath it all, a strange sense of the profound and the ridiculous mingling with one another. After the above list of fascinating excursions elsewhere, it’s also good to be reminded of what they do best and with such seeming ease.
Reaffirming the sense of greatest hits is the cast, which features many actors from their existing roster; George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand and even a barely seen Fred Melamed. As in a Wes Anderson picture, the revolving door of guest appearances feels pointedly self-referential, and similarly the brothers have clearly written these parts for their intended players. Clooney gets to flex his goofy comedic chops once more as abducted actor Baird Whitlock, for instance. But Hail, Caesar! also sees some new faces join the ensemble. Jonah Hill has one scene (and makes it onto the poster too; nice going, Jonah), Tilda Swinton similarly dips briefly in and out of the narrative while Ralph Fiennes is perfectly placed as prestigious director Laurence Laurentz. Even Channing Tatum fits right in.
Last, but by no means least is Alden Ehrenreich, gamely accepting the thankless task of playing the bad actor; rodeo performer turned Hollywood star Hobie Doyle. His scene with Fiennes is priceless, and reassuringly reveals that some of the film’s funniest moments haven’t been given away in the trailer.
So what’s the story? It’s a familiar mix of tropes we’ve seen before from the Coens. It’s the 1950s. Brolin is ostensibly the lead in an ensemble piece playing Capitol Studios exec Eddie Mannix, who, over the course of a couple of days, has to contend with the abduction of one of the studio’s most prized assets (Clooney’s Whitlock), the ill-fated placing of Doyle in Laurentz’ latest esteemed production, the moral ambiguity of a job offer from Lockheed, an unexpected pregnancy that places Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran in an unfavourable light and, to top it all off, the pressures of giving up smoking at his wife’s behest. All the while fending off the press (Swinton in a dual role).
The over-familiarity of some of the material might sound on paper as though the Coens are running thin on ideas, but they all serve a far simpler purpose of allowing the brothers to play in the Hollywood sandbox. They’ve tipped their hats to cinema’s brief history throughout their career, but situating their story within Hollywood affords them the opportunity to really celebrate its classic era.
In a similar manner to how HBO’s Treme series would take time out from the drama of New Orleans to highlight certain musicians, Hail, Caesar! relishes the chance to indulge a number of films within the film. So we get a taste of the Roman prestige picture that gives the movie its name, but there are also extended nods to the hokier westerns of the time, for instance, not to mention Tatum’s movie-stealing tap dance musical number “No Dames!” which would slot happily into virtually any Gene Kelly picture.
It’s a celebration. And while these scenes may not add to the overall plot per se (which ties up with the brothers’ standard aplomb), they inform the tone of the movie as a whole. There is love up on the screen, more than enough for them to also get away with a great number of backhanded swipes at the system. Hollywood might not have been this successfully sent up by itself since Robert Altman’s The Player.
Social anxieties of the time are woven into the storyline, from the H-bomb to the shady ‘commie’ threat lurking in the background of society. This latter element is wound tightly into the central narrative, only to be brazenly toyed with in a pivotal scene at sea, again stolen by Tatum.
With frivolity and foolishness at every turn, Brolin is necessarily restrained as Mannix; the straight man trying to keep order in a sea of clowns, but he also imbues the man with a heartfelt sadness. The film is bookended by scenes of Mannix in the confession box. Here he seems sincerely burdened by minor flaws in his character as though he has taken it upon himself to be the paragon of virtue in an establishment bursting at the seams with scandal and decadence. His ultimate loyalty to the cause marking him out as the kind of dogged, thankless hero the Coens love to spotlight.
At it’s beginning Hail, Caesar! falters a little as it struggles to set everyone up and define its own universe. It feels unusually quiet in places, as though some of Carter Burwell’s stirring music got lost in the edit. But once the machinations of the story starts grinding its gears, momentum takes it away.
It may not be the pinnacle of their career to date, and the deja vu may grate for those unfortunate souls who aren’t enamoured with their work already, but even if Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens trusting in what they know, it’s a pleasure to see that they still know it so very, very well.