Throughout their career, The Coen Brothers have formed something of a habit for following up their darker, more cryptic dramatic works with broader, sillier comedies. Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, Barton Fink to The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There to Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men to Burn After Reading. While a couple of their films lie somewhere in-between, most of them can be placed in one of the two categories. Now they continue that trend, a few years on from the outstandingly melancholic musical-drama Inside Llewyn Davis with Hail, Ceasar!, a Hollywood period comedy that’s gloriously silly, and frequently hysterical.
Revolving around Capitol Pictures, a fictional movie studio in the Golden Age of Hollywood (it also featured in Barton Fink), the Coens strike just the right balance in drawing humour from the more ridiculous and dated elements of the period’s movie-making trends, while also displaying a clear, honest affection for them. All the sequences we get from movies being made within this movie are, while funny, not parodic, and many viewers might well be left wanting to see what those entire films might have been.
The Coens have assembled a sprawling cast to play characters on all sides of the fifties film business, most of whom have worked with them before. We get Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johannson as movie stars of the era, introduced during two separate highly choreographed musical sequences. Tilda Swinton gets an amusing dual role as rival gossip columnists who happen to be twin sisters. A few are briefer cameos such as Frances McDormand as an editor and Jonah Hill as a character who’s job is sufficiently and intriguingly unusual that I don’t want to reveal exactly what it entails here.
It’s a real testament to the Coen’s reputation that so many high profile actors are more than willing to take on smaller, and at times self-depreciating roles for them in a lower budget movie such as this. Not in the least George Clooney, who they’ve yet again cast as an oblivious imbecile, something he excels at doing in their films. He plays Baird Whitlock (the Coens’ brilliance at naming characters continues unabated here), a big movie star working on the titular Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, a Ben-Hur-esque sandal epic that’s the studio’s big-budget “prestige picture” for the year. He winds up getting kidnapped by a mysterious political group in one of the film’s several story-strands, and spends the entire film forgetting he’s still in his Roman soldier costume.
The film’s lead is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” for the studio who essentially goes around trying to keep everything running smoothly and all the many potential hazards in check. He’s in some ways playing the straight man to a collection of more eccentric and comedic characters. He’s a solid anchor to the film, not resorting to weary exasperation and always attempting to keep things professional. That doesn’t mean Brolin’s been lumped with a boring role allowing his various co-stars to take turns in stealing the spotlight though, he has personal struggles of his own, with his concerns about lying to his wife over quitting smoking, and a potential new job offer resulting in frequent trips to the confessional that are laced with dry humour.
Despite all of the major names in the film, the one absolute standout character is played by the relatively unknown Alden Ehrenreich (he was in Stoker & Blue Jasmine but I didn’t immediately recognise him). He plays Hobie Doyle, an up-and-coming Western star who the studio has decided to re-brand as a “serious” actor by giving him a key role in a new play adaptation from prestigious European director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). What makes Hobie such an endearing character is that, despite being rather dim-witted and not especially talented (in the acting department at least), he’s incredibly sincere in his attempts to please everyone. Ehrenreich’s utterly winning performance could well see him propelled to stardom, managing to successfully play a distinctive character who’s bad at acting within the world of the film is quite some achievement (something Clooney is also doing here). Ehrenreich also gets one of the film’s most charming character moments, while waiting for a studio-mandated date with a young actress; he begins casually practicing his lasso skills by the car. It’s perfectly played and speaks to the authenticity of the persona the studio is trying to move him away from.
The films’ funniest exchange comes between Ehrenreich and Fiennes, as the director desperately attempts to improve his new actor’s enunciation of a particular line of dialogue. It’s a hilarious moment that deserves, and likely will come to be regarded among the Coens’ most memorable lines (and there are already quite a few of those). The film has a few other potential contenders for such a spot too, such as a priceless meeting between Mannix and a panel of multi-faith religious experts assessing any possible offence the titular Biblical film might cause, and the third-act moment when Ehrenreich and Clooney encounter one another that’s just quintessential Coen comedy.
There’s some concern that the film, with its multiple strands and numerous characters might risk being overstuffed, and it would be tough to deny such a criticism. The only time I personally felt confused was the sudden arrival of Christopher Lambert, who makes a brief appearance. I missed the relevance he plays to another character’s dilemma but that may just be due to my surprise that he was in this film. There are a couple of other characters who don’t quite work, Frances McDormand’s scene feels a bit out-of-place tonally, and there’s intermittent narration from Michael Gambon that doesn’t serve much purpose and is infrequent enough that when it re-appears you might well have forgotten there even was a narrator in the first place.
Plot is not of primary concern to Hail, Caesar! though, similar to The Big Lebowski, there isn’t some grand goal it’s all leading to, though it checks off a number of familiar Coen themes. I probably didn’t catch everything that’s going on after one viewing, and perhaps repeats will reveal more? Regardless, even if ultimately it’s proven to be a bit of an empty film, it’s still immensely entertaining, and another essential addition to the Coen Brothers’ body of work.