Movie Review: Hail Caesar!

By Steven Arvanitis

The Coen brothers career has covered a wide range of films throughout the years, from the personable, darkly comedic A Serious Man, to an exploration of Old-Hollywood in the hallucinatory Barton Fink. Hail Caesar! covers them all. With a disjointed structure, more interested in tangential experiences than a central plot, it explores the usual Coen brother themes under a screwball surface. The main conceit is one of faith, as one attempts to hold it together and find their way through the chaotic, murky business that is the film industry, as well as being a gleefully playful send up of old-Hollywood and it’s largely in-house production.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer for the film studio Capitol Pictures, who weaves his way through the tight wire act that is managing a handful of films that are in production at the same time for a studio that is essentially a jumbled mess. The big, blockbuster picture that retains most of the film’s focus, as well as the studio’s, is Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a hammy roman epic in which star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) plays a consul that is eventually converted to Christianity after being exposed to the ways of Christ himself. However; things start to go awry when Baird suddenly disappears off the set, something that Eddie initially dismisses as one of his usual benders. After things seem suspicious, Eddie receives a message from a group called “The Future” stating that Baird has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom.

Through all that bedlam, Eddie must also handle two journalists (both played by Tilda Swinton) attempting to get a hot scoop on the mysterious happenings, a wide range of films in different states of production, including dealing with fussy director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes), who is deeply upset with the forced casting decision of Hobie Doyle (an excellent Alden Ehrenreich) – a western star attempting overcome his heavy southern drawl, as well as actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who must keep her pregnancy under wraps in order to maintain her wholesome image.

We first meet Mannix in a church, confessing to his priest about myriad things, including his attempts at hiding his smoking habit from his wife. Through his apparently often confessions, he’s able to move forward in his job, using religion as a way to keep forth in his tiresome job. Both Mannix, The Future, and these film’s audiences all believe in a system bigger than themselves. “They don’t want the truth! They just want to believe!” Mannix shouts with vigor, a testament to the power of film and it’s production in it’s old-Hollywood age. Mannix must find his path through the chaotic labyrinth of Capitol Records, taking risks and losses, attempting to shape everything into a coherent whole, as any small aspect gone wrong can derail everything at once.

As sharp as ever, the Coen brothers mine humor from the clever situations and characters they craft. A stellar scene involving Laurence attempting to help Hobie annunciate his lines (“Would that it were so simple?”) standing out in spectacular fashion. The film continues with a screwball glaze that is a joy to watch, consistently hinting at a deeper thematic weight through it’s playful demeanor.

Hail Caesar mixes a witty, clever, and humorous script with it’s faith-based themes within a gracefully screwy love-letter to Hollywood in a post-war age. It’s disjointed structure, and the following strange tangents may distance some, finding it difficult to gel with it’s odd frequency; however, it’s wondrous style, and mix of the Coen brother’s varied filmography up to this point, navigates the magical tales of the film industry in such a weighty and entertainingly lush way that it just might be up there as one of their finest, and most intriguing works.