by Lee Purvey
Sometimes the difference between the mundane and the absurd is a matter of seconds, a distinction upon which Joel and Ethan Coen capitalize with impressive consistency in their new film Hail, Caesar! A comedy that relies more on subverting norms of pacing and tone than comic bravado or witty dialogue, this 1950s Hollywood farce is able to coax hilarity out of fairly innocuous set pieces simply by letting the audience’s gaze linger just a little too long, inducing nervous chuckles with the slightest hint of a wink. Placed alongside Raising Arizona or The Ladykillers, Hail, Caesar! offers a softer, subtler manifestation of the Minnesotan brothers’ surreal vision -- one that elicits laughter at a pace nearly matching their best comedies.
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Eric Fellner
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker
US Theatrical Release: February 5, 2016
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The film’s promotion overstates the plot’s mystery. “We have your movie star,” reads a note delivered to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the point man at a major Hollywood studio for all things crisis. The movie star in question is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead for a Biblical prestige picture -- also titled Hail, Caesar! -- that Mannix’s Capitol Pictures is in the final stages of shooting. Whitlock has been kidnapped by Communists, but his abduction is only one of at least half-a-dozen logistical and promotional emergencies -- from a pair of meddling columnists (both Tilda Swinton) to a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson) -- that Mannix has to handle over the course of a day at the office. The plot’s real driving question isn’t even related to the movies: Mannix has been made a generous offer by Lockhead International Aircraft, with regular working hours and “real” responsibilities (Lockhead’s recruiter ludicrously teases a photo of a hydrogen bomb test in hopes of convincing him), and he can’t decide whether or not to take it. Though it does little in the way of theatrical tension, Mannix’s decision offers the Coens a chance to question the worth of and, ultimately, celebrate the craft that they so clearly love.
From here the plot doesn’t develop so much as occur. The Coens have made a career reworking generic forms mined from Hollywood cinema. Whether it’s the detective story (The Big Lebowski), the film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo), the romantic comedy (Intolerable Cruelty), or the Western (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), the brothers have had no trouble adapting these disparate forms to their peculiar aesthetic sense. Hail, Caesar! can read like a collage of many of these experiments, revisiting themes and set pieces from throughout their career. There’s the obsession with procedure and crisis -- a holdover from Intolerable Cruelty, which, though nominally a part of the Coen-Clooney “Numbskull Trilogy” (now certainly a tetralogy), reveled in Miles Massey’s consummate professionalism before finally pulling the rug out from under him. A Serious Man’s theological farce is on full display in an early sequence in which Mannix invites a Protestant minister, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, and a rabbi to discuss the political correctness of Hail, Caesar! (“God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry”). And, of course, Whitlock’s kidnapping mirrors the more opaque disappearance of Bunny Lebowski, though the Coens trade The Big Lebowski’s conniving nihilists for (equally buffoonish) Marxists. The brothers supplement these recycled parts with a handful of smartly poached characters from elsewhere in American cinema. Ralph Fiennes shows up for a scene or two, channelling the effete M. Gustave of 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel as Laurence Laurentz, a sniffy, pedantic auteur. Meanwhile, on another sound stage, Channing Tatum mines his dance hunk oeuvre as the star of an exquisitely choreographed song-and-tap vehicle with a nautical theme. Though all somewhat funny in their own right, the Coens -- true geniuses at both casting and scene-to-scene pacing -- build a dreamy, easygoing structure for these parts to inhabit.
Though ostensibly shaped by the same mold as The Big Lebowski, Hail, Caesar! lacks that film’s linguistic intricacy or commitment to mystery. Whitlock’s kidnapping takes place on screen and, although there are a couple of minor reveals as the plot develops, his plight offers little opportunity for conjecture. The biggest difference between Hail, Caesar! and so many of the Coens’ works, however, is one of tone. Considering their genre-busting tendencies, it’s appropriate that, here, the the Coens reject that cardinal quality of so many movies about making movies: a sense of cynicism. Hollywood and (particularly) movie stars are historically easy targets for mockery, but Hail, Caesar! never cross the line into condescension. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy star miscast in a high society melodrama, is a caricature until he isn’t, emerging as a charming and smart -- if somewhat aloof -- ally in the Whitlock rescue efforts. Swinton’s Thora and Thessaly Thacker, though comically insecure about their profession, are also perceptive and articulate -- finally duped more by the absurdity of their situation than any fault of their own.
What emerges is a manifesto of Coen Brothers filmmaking. Slate’s David Ehrlich has already drawn the apt comparison to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which similarly summed up Wes Anderson’s aesthetic ethos. Like Anderson’s film, Hail, Caesar! is an ode to the pleasures of artistry, here coupled with a procedural romp about its creation. The brothers have found something of a sweet spot in Hollywood -- adored by critics and mass audiences alike -- so it’s not much of a surprise that their new film treats the movie business kindly. The results are meandering and imperfect, but charmingly humanistic. Good-not-great, Hail, Caesar! mirrors its neurotic protagonist: it may not be perfect, but it sure gets the job done.