For as long as they’ve been working, the Coen Brothers have been some of the most diverse filmmakers in terms of the tone of their films. They can go from dark, intense dramas like No Country For Old Men and True Grit, to dark comedies like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Their style makes each of their films a great event, never really knowing what tone you’re going to get from them when the film is first announced. With Hail Caesar, they’ve gone to the comedic well more along the lines of Intolerable Cruelty, an insanely silly screwball comedy built on broad slapstick and fast dialogue, and it’s one of the most fun films that will be released this year.
The film focuses on Eddie Mannix, the fixer for Capitol Pictures, making him in charge of the numerous problems the studio faces, with the film following three of these cases. The main focus is on the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, the star of the studio’s prestige picture Hail Caesar, by a group called The Future. The second focuses on Hobie Doyle, the star of several successful Westerns who the studio wants to be in more respectable films. The third focuses on DeAnna Moran, a synchronised swimming actress in the vein of Ester Williams who has become pregnant and needs to find a way to give birth to and look after her baby in a way that will not cause any damage to the studio. Within this there are also attempts by gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker to boost their careers by attacking the studio and Mannix getting a job offer from Lockheed. The entirety of the film takes place in a single day, which really puts us in the mindset of Mannix. All the insanity that unfolds on the studio lot, whilst looking intense on the outside, is just another day in the life of Mannix, with the pacing of the film lending itself well to this. The film also does a good job mixing in more serious elements, such as the reason for the more extravagant productions we see being the rise of TV eating into the success of the film industry, along with the way pregnant women are treated by the studios, the need to get religious approval before making films to avoid offending people, the scandals that are created requiring a fall guy for the studio and the nature of the Blacklist related to The Future, the Coens even do a dig at the all white casts of the time and of this film with the prominent placement of a black extra highlighting the disparity. All of these elements create a thematically rich film but the real strength of the film is in it’s humour. The film is insanely silly, relying a lot on fast dialogue (as in the Would That It Were So Simple scene in the trailer) and slapstick and it works wonders for the film. Within the silliness there’s a clear respect for the film genres being made fun of, with the scenes of the films we see being great affectionate parodies of the prominent film genres of the time. As with most comedies, it’s hard to talk about precisely what works in Hail Caesar without giving away most of the jokes, but when the comedy is on point I was howling with laughter.
The comedic sensibilities of the film are brilliantly brought across by the cast. Josh Brolin does great work as the straight man of the film. There’s a mix of exasperation and loyalty that he brings to the part, along with an air of professionalism that lets you know he’ll do anything for the studio and the cast, with this mixed in with a great sense of grief he feels over not being able to spend enough time with his wife and children. The way Brolin works off the rest of the cast is excellent as well, being a great glue to bind all the elements of the film. George Clooney meanwhile is a complete buffoon as Baird Whitlock, in the best way. His facial expressions and general body language, both when he’s acting and when he’s with The Future, are hilarious to watch, along with the way his character changes over the film, which I won’t spoil here.Scarlett Johansson gives a great comedic performance in her brief scenes, showing great contrast between the grace she presents herself with on screen with the more foul mouthed, angry personality she has in real life, along with the difficulties she feels over the situation with her being pregnant. Channing Tatum is hilarious as Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly-esque musical star, equating himself brilliantly in the main dance sequence he has, with the body language he presents throughout the film being one of the main elements that had me roaring with laughter. Ralph Fiennes does a great job bringing his dry charm to Laurence Laurentz, especially his exasperation with Doyle, Frances McDormand, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert and Jonah Hill are glorified cameos but they do great work in their scenes whilst Tilda Swinton brings some good menace as the Thacker sisters, being very reminiscent of Hedda Hopper. The standout of the film though is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. A lot of the best comedic moments of the film are courtesy of him, mainly how out of his depth he is in a period drama and the scenes making fun of the over the top westerns at the time but there’s also a fair bit of depth to his character. It’s clear he loves what he does, wanting to be respected as an actor, but he also knows his limitations, even he feels that he should not have been cast in a period drama, he feels more at home in westerns, best seen with his skills with a lasso which he can do even with some spaghetti, he wants to have good relationships with the other people he works with, best seen in his interactions with Carlotta Valdez, an actress he’s forced to go on a date but who he ends up having a rapport with and he’s able to use his experiences outside of the film industry to benefit Mannix, especially in relation to Whitlock’s disappearance. Eldenreich is a great find by the Coen Brothers who have a knack for introducing great relatively unknown actors to us (such as Frances McDormand in Blood Simple, Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit) and I hope Eldenreich has a strong career after this.
The technical aspects of the film are as strong as is expected from a Coen Brothers film. The direction and cinematography (courtesy of the great Roger Deakins) is top notch. This is matched by excellent production design which does a great job replicating the feel of 1950s Hollywood, along with great costume design. All of these aspects are best seen in the films within the film. The details for all of the sets and the elements of the films we see are brilliantly done. From the grandeur of Hail Caesar, to the elegance of the Merrily We Dance set and the choreography of the dancing sequences, both the water and the bar dances, this is where the respect for the films of the time comes into play most effectively, along with the affectionate parody aspects, especially in the replica of the Westerns because of how brilliantly over the top it is. The music meanwhile does a great job at establishing the tone of the film, and the song written for Tatum to sing is a lot of fun to listen to and a great fit for the time period. The film also does a good job relating the movies within Hail Caesar to the main plot of the film, all of the fake films having some element of foreshadowing for the main plot.
Overall, Hail Caesar is one of the most fun films the Coen Brothers have made. It’s completely silly, but it mixes silliness with respect for the Hollywood films of the time and darker elements about what’s going to happen. The acting is excellent across the board, all of the actors fitting the tone of the film with a starmaking performance from Alden Ehrenreich, the direction, production design and cinematography does a great job at replicating the feel of 1950s Hollywood and the script is one of the funniest that will be seen this year. I don’t know how well this film will play to those without even a vague understanding of classic Hollywood but I had a great time with this film and it comes highly recommended.
My Rating: 5/5