From Fargo to A Serious Man, the beautifully twisted No Country for Old Men and the cult classic The Big Lebowski, no one can deny that Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most interesting and versatile filmmakers in Hollywood. Whether it’s subtle comedy or shades of darkness, spirituality or the surreal, the brothers seem incapable of making a bad film.
And Hail Caesar! is no exception.
Set in the 1950’s, the film follows real-life Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he works to solve the movie studio’s many problems. If a star’s behavior proves expensive, less-than-wholesome, or a pending public relations disaster, Mannix is called in to get the actor/actress back in line.
However, the kidnapping of lead star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) complicates matters, as Whitlock was the eponymous Caesar for the studio’s latest epic drama. With filming costs threatening to explode without him, Mannix prepares the ransom while ducking the overly-inquisitive press.
The movie divides itself between this main thread and several minor plots with various other characters. Some of these threads tie-in to the overall story by coincidence or necessity. Others are just interesting bits of micro-fiction and red herrings that fall between the cracks, like DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and her pregnancy outside of wedlock, or Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who can’t seem to make the transition from Western action star to a bonhomme thespian. Though very little beats watching Channing Tatum perform a ludicrous song and dance routine as a Naval seaman just before shipping out.
Although Mannix is based on a historic person, the other characters and themes tend to be composites of Hollywood archetypes, often hinting at the histories and gossip surrounding their real-life counterparts. Examples include a detail not unlike Clark Gable’s alleged hit-and-run incident or the communists ties of the screenwriters (which was recently discussed in the biographic movie Trumbo with far less cheek).
At its heart, Hail Caesar! covers Hollywood at a very different time, and gently satirizes it. Unfortunately, the movie will be remembered more as one of those recent films that divides the critics from the audiences. Rotten Tomatoes reports an 85% fresh certification, but also reports a general dislike for it among reporting audience members.
Why is this? Two theories come to mind. The first is that the film showed too much about “how the sausage is made.” And the second is the possibility rests in that it teased movies we claim are classics, and perhaps poking fun at these pieces of nostalgia was an unwise call.
And that is a shame, as I found Hail Caesar! a quite enjoyable experience, and one I’d recommend cinema fans to at least consider.