Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.
Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.
A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.
Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.
So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.
Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.