The Brothers Coen, or Coen Brothers as most describe them, are back in the out-and-proud business of entertainment with a rambunctious ride of a comedy, in the vein of Raising Arizona and the cult phenomenon that is The Big Lebowski. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is a period piece/melodrama/screwball comedy hybrid that functions as a nostalgia-driven look back at the celebrated Golden Age of Hollywood that produced epics along the likes of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, as well as the cheesy, but classy musicals featuring Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, and that guitar-playing gaucho, Roy Rogers.
Our leading player, Eddie Mannix, played to worn perfection by Josh Brolin, is a “fixer”, a man whose talents are put to use sniffing out and snuffing out potential scandals before they happen. A typical day involves a morning confessional at church, on-the-run schedule dictation with his world-weary secretary, multiple phone calls with studio heads and big-wig power players to keep the films on schedule, and meetings with actors and directors to work out their personal gripes.
On this day of days, a big name leading male star is kidnapped from his trailer, and that’s only the beginning of the shenanigans. Not only does Eddie have to pay ransom money for his missing male lead, he also has to deal with a furious director unsatisfied with his actors’ abilities, a pregnant starlet whose image is dependent on the public not finding out about her previous marriages and mishaps, twin gossip columnists on the prowl for juicy scoops, and on top of all that, he still has to make it home in time for dinner with the wife.
This film gets how to make a complicated narrative interesting to unravel, and still navigable without a color-coded map of characters, partially because they already are by their costumes. The Hollywood players wear suits to work, the mermaid has a tail, the kidnapped lead looks like a cosplayer from ancient Rome, and the song-and-dance men are all gussied up in their sailor outfits.
The cast of characters is eccentric to say the least, with a sizable portion of the film put aside to detail the confusingly offbeat path set for one Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), prominent star of singing cowboy B-movies, who is suddenly thrust into a big and fancy, A-list prestige picture, complete with tuxes and tails. Doyle struggles to make do, but it’s obvious to all that he’s out of his element. But, a chance meeting with Eddie in his office leads to Hobie getting involved in tracking down the missing Baird Whitlock. Of all the key characters, Hobie is the only one truly intertwined with the kidnapped George Clooney story, unlike what the trailer sold to audiences: an all-star team-up of Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, and Jonah Hill to rescue George Clooney.
Many have accused the movie of being uneven and not unjustly so, as the film juggles many plot lines, mostly played for grins, dealing in sexy scandals, undercover communists, and kidnappings behind the scenes of a major Hollywood studio, Capitol Pictures. The story meanders around and jumps to different locations and character point of views as much as most rambling stories told to us by friends do. But, realistically, the changes in tone and pace make sense, as the main character is being escorted from problem to problem in the expectation that he can “fix” it with minimal trouble, but that’s not always the case.
One single, simple case of covering up an unwanted pregnancy ends up involving two trips to a law office to scope out legal solutions and a visit to a sound stage where the potential father is directing a musical sequence. Not all problems nowadays come in single events or day lengths. Some days, problems just proceed to pile on top of another until the poor schmo of problematic stature throws up his hands and reaches for the hooch. This is a filmed version of one of those days, and it’s being treated like it’s unbelievable fantasy. Harsh.
A particularly memorable sequence involves Eddie organizing a meet-up between local religious leaders to discuss whether the appearance of The Christ in the titular film would be considered tasteful by audiences of faith. “So a Protestant Minister, a Rabbi, an Orthodox Priest, and a full-blooded Catholic walk into a movie studio…”, you see where I’m going with this? The dialogue crackles with dry, witty barbs and argumentative personalities who just can’t agree on who The Christ was in context of the film, instead picking apart the stunts in the script for being “unbelievable”. It’s a really fun scene that makes the film feel heightened in hilarity, yet grounded in realistic human personalities. Late in the film, an actor, crucified on high, is asked whether he is a principal or extra by the lunch organizer. The actor wearily replies with uncertainty, as if to say even the cast doesn’t quite know what’s going on, which is a nice touch.
The movie itself looks fantastic. Roger Deakins, up for an Oscar this year for his haunting work on SICARIO (a vastly different Josh Brolin movie), brings a true touch of class to the proceedings, providing lush and vibrant recreations of Hollywood Old with a new twist. The cast plays well together, with not just the big established stars turning in great performances, from the likes of Clooney, Johannson, and Jonah Hill. The up-and-coming support shine through the action, with special mention to Alden Ehrenreich as the sure-footed cowpoke suddenly thrust into stardom. Besides Brolin and Clooney, not everyone else shares a lot of the screen time, with Brolin rushing from problem to problem and Clooney staring bewildered at his mischievously political captors from time to time. There’s a cute moment with Coen Bros. veteran Frances McDormand showing up as a chain smoking editor locked in a suite with her current project, the prestige picture that Hobie was thrust onto. But it is mostly a “hey, it’s [that actor]” kinda movie, with two kind of central characters navigating a never-ending pool of eccentrics.
Hail, Caesar! is a worthy addition to the Coen catalogue of manic and truly original works that straddle genre boundaries and don’t care if the audience can keep up with its brand of joyful noise. It rockets along at a gleeful pace and just packs in the homages to everything from Anchors Aweigh to Ben-Hur. I have a feeling this could be the Grand Budapest Hotel of 2016; it comes out early, entertains the crowds, and silently pokes its head up around Oscar season to snag some Oscar nominations later in the year.
If you are in the mood for a jolly old time revisiting the tone and imagery of Hollywood Classics of old, this movie will thoroughly entertain. If you are in a No Country for Old Men mood, you best stay home and watch the Coen’s version of True Grit, or the bleaker Josh Brolin movie, SICARIO.