It’s no secret that the Coen Brothers’ movies have always owed something to the golden age of Hollywood, as film noir and screwball comedies have always had an integral influence on the Coens’ cannon. Granted, these influences usually never take hold of a picture and control the tone of it, but it’s more that elements of these genres are used for perpetuating the Coens’ consistently cynical worldview. The Coens’ latest Hail, Caesar!, sees them reigning in their bleak tendencies a bit (or at least compared to recent efforts like Inside Llewyn Davis or A Serious Man), and in the process more or less have some fun with a lot of the different genres from Hollywood’s golden era. And yet, even though this is technically a “fun” Coen Brothers movie, it still manage to work in plenty of themes relating to politics, religion, show business, and the whole meaning of it all.
Hail, Caesar! takes place over what is basically a day-in-the-life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a guy who works for the fictional movie studio Capitol Pictures, and whose job it is to take care of any problems pertaining to the studio’s movie stars and their needy movie star problems. Mannix has a bit of a pickle on his hand when one of the studio’s biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney), goes missing. We then see that Whitlock has been captured by a bunch of communists hoping to brainwash him, while also demanding a $100,000 ransom from the studio, though if you’ve seen any Coen brothers’ movie, you can probably guess that the money ends up being a bit of a mcguffin. Then as Mannix scrambles to get his star back, we see him dealing with a slew of other problems on different movie sets, which presents plenty of opportunities for what I would call very extended cameos from the likes of Scarlett Johannson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Feinnes and plenty others.
First of all, it’s just a lot of fun to see some of the brightest stars of today inhabit a world in which movie stars were meant to be larger than life, and were almost these beloved objects for audiences to project their hopes and dreams and fears onto, but all for the sake of their own entertainment. Clearly, times have changed, and there are only a handful of working actors that are legitimate “movie stars”, or at least are movie stars in the way that they were in the ’50s. Brolin, Clooney, Johannson, and dare I say it, Tatum are among the few movie actors that have that old-fashioned star quality. So I have to imagine that’s something the Coens were setting out to play around with in Hail, Caesar!, since everybody gets at least one scenery-chewing sequence that maybe doesn’t always have that much to do with the plot, but usually manages to evoke the thrills of good old-fashioned American filmmaking.
Still, Hail, Caesar! is a bit more than just a rosey tribute to old Hollywood, as it tackles the wave of communism that ran through the film industry during the ’50s, much of which was organized by (surprise) disgruntled screenwriters that were pushed aside by the studio system. The scenes where Clooney is having conversations about economics and an individual’s place in society felt a bit more like something out of one of the Coens’ more existential pictures. But I suppose that’s ok, since a lot of the scenes in this movie feel like scenes from another movie, since a lot of them are literally scenes from other movies (i.e. the films within this film). Which perhaps doesn’t make for the most cohesive story, but I think the movie works since there are enough really good stand-alone scenes, including a particularly memorable one that revolves around the phrase “would that it were so simple?”
Even though I did enjoy this movie, this is one of those films were I do have to question if I (and most critics) would have responded to it a little more if we weren’t so aware of the directors’ oeuvre and the expectations of it being one of their films. Like would I think this is a really awesome movie if it didn’t have the Coens’ names attached to it? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. All I know, is that Hail, Caesar! can’t help but attract the phrase “Coens light”, since it doesn’t quite have the gravity of their best work, but is still an inherently interesting film because the Coens are just one of those artists whom it’s always a joy to watch paint.