The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) have for close to four decades now being making movies that are both unique and brilliant. It would come to no surprise at all to anyone for me to say they are in top tier of favorite directors of mine. Each film offers something new and original to their cannon and no two films have ever been the same. When a Coen brother film is announced there is always a bit of excitement that runs through my body, because I know we are going to get something like we have never seen before.
I think it takes a certain kind of person to really appreciate a film by the Coen Brothers. They don’t make that mainstream fare that everyone instantly loves (well they did try this in the early 00’s with not much success). Instead they make movies about real life human characters, often times grounded in some over the top situation. Their movies are funny but not in the typical way you expect from a comedy. Their films require a certain knowledge of topics or the audience can get lost or bored (this happened to me with A Serious Man, where I didn’t understand the Jewish traditions being shown off in the film, but I was never bored by the film I must say!). To me personally these are the kind of movies I live for and Coen movies are usually events for me.
So here they are with Hail Caesar, perhaps their least mainstream movie ever. Hail Caesar is a funny and almost cartoonish look back at the early 1950’s Hollywood, which was going through a transition period, with TV just starting to take off and the studio system breaking down. It was during the time when the Cold War and The Red Scare were in full swing and the studio’s were looking to make pictures that would please their audience, despite being poorly made films.
One of the big style of movies coming out of that era were the sword and sandal epics (famously made fun of in Airplane the Movie). Thus this Coen’s movie is mostly based around the making of a big sword and sandal epic called Hail Caesar a massive budgeted film, with expensive flashy set pieces, lavish costumes and the biggest star in the world Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). During the production of this movie Whitlock is drugged and taken hostage by a communist group of writers, who call themselves The Future.
This is brought to the attention of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is head of the physical production at the studio and fixer to the stars, keeping all their dirty secrets away from reports like Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Twilda Swinton) who work as gossip columnists at rival rags. An interesting piece of history is that Eddie Mannix was a real life studio fixer and the screenplay is loosely based on his life.
As Mannix tries to figure out what to do about the Whitlock situation he is stuck dealing with a few other of his star players. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johnasson) who is staring in a synchronized swimming movie, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Mannix comes up with a plan to put the baby up for adoption and have Moran adopt the baby later so that nobody knows. Main while Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) a lousy actor who usually sticks to westerns, where his talents don’t matter all that much, is being forced to star in a series period drama, directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Finnes), who finds Doyle’s acting appalling and lets Mannix know how he feels. There is also Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who is staring in a Sailor Comedy with elaborate dance numbers.
Hail Caesar is basically a love letter to a time in film when so much was bad but most of the audience didn’t care because it was taking their minds off the horrors of the outside world. The Coen’s are clearly fans of these films and want to show it some love in the best way the know how, not by making a movie like that but by showing the way things were in that era and why these films were being made. With a slight nod to that style of filming making in the last third of the film.
The acting is tremendous across the board, with Clooney stealing the show as the egomaniac rich Hollywood star, who thinks he is gods gift to everyone. Tatum does some amazing dance work in his scenes and damn near steals the show. Finnes as the snooty film director is a riot. And Brolin is his reliable excellent self.
Hail Caesar despite its big Hollywood names is not a film for everyone. It is very much about the love of cinema and sticks to a certain era of film making. If you are not familiar with this era or generally find Coen Brothers movies hard to swallow, this isn’t the film for you. That said I found myself laughing out loud many of times, and thoroughly having a great time watching this film. And it only got better with a repeat viewing. So if you think this is the movie for you jump in and have a blast, cause their is tons of fun to be had here.