The thing about the Coen brothers is that no matter strange, dark and personal their movies get, they also still enjoy a good laugh. Their latest film. ‘Hail, Caesar!’, comes after three fairly ambitious pictures that wrestled with some hefty themes. This time, the brothers merely hint at intellectual ambitions. This movie is a goof, one executed on a grand scale, filled with movie stars and littered with homages to the old Hollywood studio escapism that once inspired their film drunk brains.
It’s certainly amusing to watch, but probably not quite as much fun to consume as the gang had making it. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the Coens goofing around every now and then. The fact that they can be this fluffy and also deliver movies with real heft and artistry is part of what makes them such exciting talents.
The film is about a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). There was a real Eddie Mannix who kept movie stars out of gossip rags for MGM, but this isn’t him. This Mannix works for Capital Pictures, the same studio that employed Barton Fink the last time the Coens fooled around at Hollywood’s expense. Mannix begins his day in confession agonizing over a few cigarettes before diving into the day’s troubles at the studio. It starts innocently enough – checking in with a few religious representatives from various churches on whether or not the studio’s new Biblical epic is treating the Lord A-OK. Then things get rough once that movie’s idiotic star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a gang of Communist screenwriters demanding ransom.
On top of that, Mannix has a musical starlet (Scarlett Johansson) with a baby in her belly and no proper husband. The prim British director (Ralph Fiennes) of a comedy starts feuding with his assigned Western star (Alden Ehrenreich). Twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) start asking awkward questions, and a dapper young song-and-dance man (Channing Tatum) appears to have some secrets. That’s a whole bunch of plates for Mannix to spin. Get ready for some wacky diversions!
If that all sounds like too much for one movie to contain, that’s because the film is indeed overstuffed. (I didn’t even mention the quick and hilarious cameos from Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand or describe the several old-timey movies within the movie that the Coens gleefully homage.) On a certain level, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ plays like Coen brothers sketch comedy linked by a 1950s Hollywood setting. The Coens have said many times that they write their scripts from Page 1 with no grand design in place, and this one certainly feels like it. Scenes playfully flow into each other with seemingly little connection beyond the opportunity to let an actor play with snappy dialogue or the filmmakers’ desire to toy around with some old Hollywood tropes.
Like so many of their previous efforts, the movie has a vague detective narrative and a film noir structure in which colorful characters drift in and out of the frame until the protagonist can untangle which tangents are actually connected to the central mystery. However, the mystery here doesn’t really amount to much. Perhaps that’s the point.
Despite being set at the same fictional studio, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ isn’t a satire of studio politics or a pained ode to artistic struggle like ‘Barton Fink’ was. It’s not even much of a mystery despite being driven by one. Ultimately, the movie is about nothing. Sure, it has subplots connected to faith, religion and life’s purpose, but no answers. That’s something the Coens have toyed with before in ‘A Serious Man’ and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. They’re pretty committed to exploring the meaninglessness of life, much to the frustration of viewers searching for meaning.
If there is a purpose to assembling all these famous faces, colorful characters, and larger-than-life settings, perhaps it’s the Coen’s love letter to movies. They present Hollywood as a big messy collection of stars and egos and fights and secrets and money that’s difficult to navigate and filled with problems, but ultimately worth the effort due to the sheer joy of making pictures. Certainly, all of the semi-parodies of ’50s filmmaking styles that the Coens employ (complete with shifting aspect ratios) are created with care to show off the artistry and craftsmanship of studio filmmaking. It’s a subject they know all too well. Now three decades into their eccentric careers, the Coens clearly love it enough to never stop.
That’s all inside baseball, for sure. Despite being a studio product filled with famous faces, gorgeous production values and a massive marketing push, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ will probably not be a crossover hit. It’s just too weird and episodic for that. However, for fans of the Coens and old Hollywood, there’s so much to enjoy. The musical numbers are beautifully crafted with a tinge of gentle parody. Every famous face on screen gets some wonderfully bizarre dialogue to spit out and a lovable idiot to play. (As usual in Coenville, George Clooney is the biggest dumbbell and he delights in portraying that thickness.) The period setting is meticulously crafted to cartoonish excess. Genius cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t let a frame go by without some moment of visual splendor. The dialogue cackles with quotable exchanges.
‘Hail, Caesar!’ is sumptuous filmmaking about filmmaking. Even if it doesn’t amount to much more than a lark, a lark by folks as talented as Joel and Ethan Coen still offers more cinematic pleasure than a sincere effort by most directors. It’s amazing that they got a major studio to fund their multimillion dollar in-joke to play around with their friends. That’s just what happens when you’re the best filmmakers of your generation, I suppose. Their next movie will likely offer most satisfying artistic ambition. For now, Coen fans can simply enjoy the froth.