Hail, Caesar!

I’m not quite convinced that Jonah Hill deserves to be top-billed.

*** My apologies for not reviewing this earlier.***

As a general rule of thumb, every cinephile should make a point to make it to the theaters whenever a new Coen brothers film comes out. It’s not that every picture they make is an uncontested masterpiece (although their batting average is higher than most Hollywood auteurs); but the sheer bravado and unorthodoxy of most of their films provides a genuine growing experience for movie goers. More so than any other “big” filmmaker–with the possible exception of Quentin Tarantino–the Coen brothers challenge our expectations of cinema, tasking us to find beauty in places we don’t normally expect it, and broadening our horizons on the potential of the artistic medium.

Their latest release is Hail, Caesar!, a delightful, entertaining, somewhat subversive, and occasionally insightful picture.

Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar! centers around Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), head of production at the prestigious Capitol Pictures. Mannix’s job is to keep everything at the studio in line and under control, making sure that everyone plays nice, that productions run smoothly, and that potentially incriminating scandals are covered up. Basically, he’s the problem solver; and he has quite a variety to tackle in this film–among them an actress having a child out of wedlock, a director refusing to work with a newly transferred actor, the depiction of Jesus Christ on film, and a long-held rumor of homosexuality between an actor and director (at a time when such behavior was a social taboo)–all over a two-day span of time. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of Baird Whitlock, the lead actor in Capital Pictures’ up and coming ancient Rome/religious epic (also called Hail, Caesar!) being kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of Communists. Clearly, Mannix has a lot on plate.

Come to think of it, this movie reminds me of another Coen brothers film, The Big Lebowski. A kidnapping was the focal point of that flick as well; and part of the fun of both of these movies is their depiction of very quirky, off-center characters. For Lebowski, that meant various socio-political caricatures*; for Caesar, it’s the various actors, filmmakers, journalists, and tangentially-related people that Mannix has to deal with as part of his job. And let it never be said that the Coen brothers haven’t mastered weird-yet-memorable characters. Some of these parts are played by well-known actors and actresses, such as Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Jonah Hill, although the screen time for these four is quite limited. They all have essentially one or, at most, two memorable scenes each–with Johansson and Tatum getting to perform in their own elaborately staged musical numbers as part of the films their characters are acting in–but nothing further. It’s an interesting marketing move to advertise some of these actors so prominently when their status is essentially that of a cameo. Jonah Hill, in particular, is only in the movie for maybe two or three minutes, but was still featured heavily in the promotional material for this film.

Not every big name actor in this movie is stiffed, though. George Clooney, as Baird Whitlock, obviously plays a more central and important role. For most of the film, his character is confined to a house with his Communist captors; but it’s during this time, as he’s speaking with them, that some of the best and most amusing moments in the movie occur.  The Communists profess to him deep ideas on the exploitation of the proletariat masses by the bourgeoisie; which he then proceeds to warp and simplify and attempt to apply to his own life in strange ways. It’s funny, and Clooney finds the right notes in this part. He knows to play Baird as slightly foolish without making him a complete idiot, and his somewhat wooden personality fits in well with the picture’s hammy tone.

There’s also a fairly prominent character in the form of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy actor whom the studio attempts, somewhat unsuccessfully, to transfer to more dramatic roles. We wind up being far more emotionally involved with him than anyone else in this film, except Maddox. We really do feel bad for Hobie while watching him struggle to convey subtle emotions with a thick Texan accent when filming his first dramatic role–he’s clearly out of his element. Later, he displays a charming innocence when he attends the premiere of one of his other films, taking along a friend as a date, and downplaying his performance in the picture. It’s also Hobie who eventually discovers Whitlock’s whereabouts, so he is arguably the most overtly heroic figure in this movie, and it’s cathartic to see Hobie, who is so likable, succeed. It’s strange that Ehrenreich, a relative unknown, gets more to do than some of the high profile actors. Maybe that’s for budgetary reasons or because the Coen brothers really like the actor or because they are intentionally trying to subvert our expectations of film; but regardless, it’s a nice performance.

Truthfully, though, this really is Josh Brolin’s movie; because as the man who solves the studio’s problems, Mannix has to be at the center of everything. Brolin portrays Mannix as a man who is tough and no-nonsense on the exterior (he even gets physical sometimes), but quite kind and sympathetic on the inside (he regularly  attends confession to apologize for his sins).  I enjoy characters with that kind of complexity; I also appreciate that Mannix displays a willingness not to run away from challenges, but rather to confront them head on; even when he is tempted to leave his job for a more stable offer. There’s a sense of principle and honor to Mannix; an affirmation of good character. In a way, I think he’s also meant to stand as a counter example to the Communist ideology that Whitlock briefly adopts. There’s an amusing moment near the end of the movie when Whitlock, after returning from his hostage ordeal, divulges his new philosophy about the evils of the film studio to Mannix, only to have Mannix slap some sense into him, reminding him that the studio has actually been quite kind to its workers.

Physical confrontation aside, it is true that Mannix, at the very least, cares about the people he works with. The film seems to imply that his genuine devotion to Catholicism motivates a lot of that. Truth be told, there’s quite a bit of focus on Christianity in this picture. The story is more or less bookended by Mannix visiting a Catholic priest for confession; Capitol Picture’s Hail, Caesar! is a story about Jesus told from the point of view of a Roman general; there’s an amusing debate between a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi about the depiction of Jesus in that movie; and one of the final scenes of the film is Whitlock’s Roman general giving a great speech at the crucifixion, where he notes that mankind could be saved if that had but faith (though he can’t remember the word “faith”).

From some perspective, I think it can be argued that this movie endorses Christianity as a way to promote good in society–provided it’s properly practiced–and counteract the worldview of the Communists. But since the Coen brothers are not Christian, maybe that’s too big a stretch. At the very least, this movie does endorse the idea that basic human decency and love towards each other is the remedy for most of life’s problems; although that’s probably obvious.

It’s also probably beside the point. More than anything Hail, Caesar! is a tribute to the Classical Hollywood Cinema** of the 30s, 40s , and 50s. It lovingly recreates that era through costumes, sets, accents, atmosphere, and some well choreographed musical numbers during an age when that wasn’t viewed ironically. It’s less about the particulars of the story, I think, than the presentation of a period in time and reflection on the way things used to be in the world of filmmaking; and that’s especially important to consider given the massive shifts that have happened in the industry in the last few decades.

As I said in the beginning, Hail, Caesar! is a pretty good film, but it’s not quite an excellent one.  It doesn’t have the same zany energy as some of the other Coen brothers pictures, nor is it as poignant as something like True Grit or No Country for Old Men, and so I can’t declare this film a stellar masterpiece like some of their other work. But in this day and age it nevertheless displays an effective craft and an obvious love for its subject matter, and the characters that we meet and the historical ambience created for us more than make the journey worthwhile. I’m a little sad that is hasn’t received more attention–I think it’s been overshadowed by the Oscar-nominated pictures that are currently out–and I hope that this one isn’t forgotten in time. Its heart is certainly in the right place.

*At some point I’ll get around to writing about that in greater depth.

**This term comes courtesy of Wikipedia.



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