A dense morality play posing as a frivolous celebration of the Hollywood Golden Age, Hail, Caesar! takes all the hallmarks of the Coens’ comedic, offbeat approach and throws the lot at the wall. Fun set-pieces and sunburst visuals aside, the film’s willfully meandering plot and existential approach to its characters’ internal quandaries are likely to alienate more casual viewers. While Hail, Caesar! might leave you scratching your head in search of some greater meaning, it’s testament to the filmmakers’ strength that you may still find yourself mulling it over days after.
Trailers have deceptively packaged Hail, Caesar! as a high-energy, broadly appealing romp through the glitzy absurdities of golden-era Hollywood. The central premise sees studio exec Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer renowned for making stars’ public problems go away, finding his process reversed following the disappearance of movie-star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the biblical epic that gives the movie its title. A straightforward whodunnit? Would that it were so simple. Whitlock’s kidnapping is only initially mined for suspense, with his Communist captors revealing their intentions to him almost immediately after he wakes up in their plush hideaway. In the meantime, Mannix proceeds with the high maintenance absurdities of his quotidien. Whether shoehorning clueless Texan B-movie actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, brilliant) into a stately costume drama by contractual obligation, or convolutedly repackaging unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran’s (Scarlett Johannson) pregnancy for the scandal-hungry media, given a face (well, two) by Tilda Swinton’s twin hacks Thora and Thessaly Thacker, Mannix is kept busy enough to distract from his own internal crises. This is a man who frequents the confession box daily, normally to disclose no more than a cheeky cigarette to the increasingly weary priest on the other side of the grill (‘It’s really too often. You’re not that bad’).
Hence, Whitlock’s disappearance forms just one of many small headaches for Brolin’s outwardly unflappable Mannix. Even when faced with ransom notes from ‘The Future’ and ramming a suitcase full of cash, Mannix maintains his professional veneer, only occasionally gasping for relief, not so much from the demands of his day-to-day, but the growing fear that in the grander scheme of things, it’s potentially all for nothing. Hungry for approval, Mannix earnestly pitches his biblical epic to a group of clergymen to find that the biggest complaint concerns an overtly acrobatic leap between two moving carriages (‘It’s just not realistic’). A far more stable, ‘important’ job offer from the Lockheed corporation offers a future away from the daily frivolity of his current position. And yet Mannix clearly believes, as do the Coens, that the film industry can offer something invaluable, not least to 1950s America. The setting – the Cold War, television ascendent – aims to instil drama to Mannix’s career decision. Ultimately, it’s in this existential dilemma that Hail, Caesar!, at least on first viewing, feels least satisfying, right up to its knowingly ‘happy’ ending. Brolin is on great form as always, yet feels less distinct than some of the Coens’ more memorable creations. His absence from the climax of the kidnapping plot only adds to the sense of distanciation that grows as Hail,Caesar! marches on, its disparate story threads rarely coalescing into a cohesive whole.
While it’s not always clear what these various strands are supposed to mean, if anything at all, Hail, Caesar! is rarely any less than uproariously entertaining, not least in the set pieces that serve as glue to join together the occasionally disjointed, slow-moving narrative. The Coens’ love of cinema is unmistakeable in their technicolor tributes to the Golden Age, where Hollywood’s output became even more gloriously ostentatious in the face of television’s rise in popularity. Of the films within the film, Johansson’s ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ indebted synchronised swimming display plays out in full, as does Channing Tatum’s appearance in the small, significant role of Gene Kelly-alike Burt Gurney, leading his soon to be dispatched navy troops in homoerotic dance number ‘No Dames’. There’s a clear sense of celebration, rather than pastiche, even if the Coens do inevitably skewer the conventions of this wholesome, primary-coloured cinema.
Relative newcomer Ehrenreich gives us Hail, Caesar!’s most memorable, most significant performance, as salt-of-the-earth singing cowboy Hobie Doyle, stranded in a period drama with unsayable lines, under the eye of Ralph Fiennes’ hilariously preening director. Doyle’s an endearing creation, wide eyed and eager to please, one who even when he’s crashing and burning, is content in the self-assurance that he’s just doing his best, untroubled by the existential moores on which Mannix finds himself wracked. Maybe, Hail, Caesar! concludes, as simple as Doyle might be, he could be right. It’s a film that points to the power of escapism, whilst acknowledging the inevitability of self-doubt. It’s also about a lot of other things, which whilst muddling the plot to a degree, offer a lot to unpack for days to come.
Hail, Caesar! might offer a less-than-steady blend of the directors familiar tendencies yet, as ever, the Coens have crafted an intriguing work, one that beneath its shiny surface offers little in the way of easy answers, and will likely reward repeat viewings.