Early on in Hail, Caesar!, the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, Josh Brolin’s character Eddie Mannix describes the work being put into the titular film-within-a-film as passionate. “It’s never been told with this kind of distinction and panache,” he says.
That’s how it goes with Hail, Caesar!, part period-centric mystery, part love letter to not just classic Hollywood, but Hollywood of any era.
Eddie Mannix is in charge of keeping order at Capital Pictures Studios, and that’s easier said than done, what with his task of having to deal with incompetent actors, unsatisfied directors and vulture-like journalists. He has even more to juggle when A-list movie star and leading man of his film, Baird Whitlock, goes missing.
Hail, Caesar! is decidedly lighthearted fare, not as heavy as Burn After Reading, for example, but just as hilarious. Observing the dichotomy between the intricacies of classic filmmaking and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans is both fascinating and hilarious.
The Coens continue to fuse comedy and suspense like it’s peanut butter and jelly; apart they’re satisfying but when fused it’s one of a kind. Had Hail, Caesar! been in different hands, the result would likely have been a whiplash-y experience, but the Coens know better than most how to seamlessly blend lighter tones with shades of noir.
Because of its setup and structure, Hail, Caesar! feels like several movies woven into one. Normally that would be a criticism, but here it’s a treat to watch scenes and sequences from fictional movies that have a legitimately classical vibe and feel to them. The music, performances and cinematography all have a part to play in the various odes to 1950s cinema; even the mystery surrounding Whitlock – which isn’t as big a part of the film as a whole as the trailers may suggest – has the feel of a Capitol Studios production.
At times the aesthetic is so appealing and inviting that the first thing the audience might do when they leave the theaters is find out where they can find movies from the era. That, or they’ll think to themselves they have absolutely zero interest in involving themselves in the film business.
As is a staple in works by the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! boasts an ensemble so uniformly perfect that it’s hard to imagine better suitors for individual characters, whether major or minor. From Brolin to Channing Tatum to Tilda Swinton, each fully realizes the restrained hyperbole of the Coens’ script and seems right at home within the time period and its personality.
Besides being thoroughly entertaining – and despite a third act that may leave some to be desired – Hail, Caesar! does a suitably nuanced job examining the film industry and what it represents. Part of the hilarity is observing the different perceptions of its ‘50s state, and what it may become in the future. And the way these different perception present themselves isn’t constrained to the time period; they could apply to the Hollywood of today as well.
The Coens are never ones to succumb to predictable story archs, and Hail, Caesar! is not their first exception. While it may seem straightforward at times, the script throws the audience for several loops with its characters, in ways often hilarious and paradoxical.
It sounds like a rough gamble, but the Coens make it work. Hail, Caesar! may not necessarily be their most thought-provoking work or their most memorable – a testament to their varied catalogue – but one gets the sense that if they know they have left the audience awed by the majesty of 1950s cinema, then they’ve done their job.
David Lynch is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He loves movies whether they were made in the 1950s or the 2010s and can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.