The Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” (2016)

There’s a saying in Hollywood that goes: “you’re only as good as your last movie”, and while we all would like to think that’s really not the case, it’s unfortunately been proven true time and time again in the court of public opinion.  Directing team Joel and Ethan Coen are well acquainted with this sentiment, as well as the erratic career momentum of seesawing from disappointment to triumph– the latest swing resulting in an unbroken string of four well-received prestige pictures in as many years.  The Coens hoped 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS— their intimate and tenderly-woven portrait of artistic struggle– would continue this hot streak, but underwhelming box office returns promptly iced those plans.  They kept a low-profile for the next couple years, quietly writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama, BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), while also developing a long-gestating idea about a troupe of actors in the 1920’s putting on a play about ancient Rome called HAIL, CAESAR! (3)  First pitched to George Clooney in 1999 on the set of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, HAIL, CAESAR! was officially announced in industry trade journals in 2004, but active development didn’t officially start until 2013 when Clooney aggressively pushed them to make it as their next project.  Nearly two decades in the making, HAIL, CAESAR! finally arrived in 2016, trading in its theatrical origins for a loving, yet bitingly satirical portrait of Hollywood studio system during its Golden Age.

The film, set in and around the bustling studio lots of 1950’s-era Los Angeles, affords the Coens ample opportunity to romp through the various popular genres of the time– pulpy westerns, lavish costume dramas, patriotic musicals, and biblical epics, to name just a few.  It’s a time of great transition in the movie business: the precisely-tuned machinery of the studio system and the very concept of “celebrity is beginning to break down and reveal its engineered artificiality, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that the studios must divest themselves from owning theater chains, and television is looming on the horizon like a foreboding storm cloud (2).  In response, Hollywood doubles down on money-making escapist fare.  As an omniscient narrator (played by Michael Gambon) sets the stage, the Coens show us the trouble lurking in the wings– namely, a gang of Communist intellectuals who have managed to kidnap Hollywood superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of his new biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!” and turn him into an agent for their cause.  Their successful heist is only one of the many headaches that Capitol Pictures executive Eddie Mannix has to deal with throughout HAIL, CAESAR!  Played by Josh Brolin in his third appearance for the brothers, Mannix is all business and stubborn persistence in a fictionalized version of the real life MGM producer of the same name (1).  An elite blessed with a working-class attitude, Mannix acts as something of a fixer for the studio, shuttling around the various productions and ensuring his unruly stars fall in with the studio line all while trying to decide whether he wants to move on to a cushy new job at Lockheed Martin.  

This being a Coen picture, however, HAIL, CAESAR! isn’t necessarily concerned with Mannix’s emotional trajectory.  Like so many Coen protagonists before him, Mannix is, rather, the steady rock that grounds a surrounding ensemble of oddballs, misfits, and all-around idiots.  The title of King Idiot goes (naturally) to Clooney in his fourth character within the brother’s so-called “idiot trilogy” (which just goes to show that idiots never know when to stop).  As the dense and impressionable movie star Baird Whitlock, Clooney leans into his natural, old-fashioned charm to project an appropriate “Hollywood Golden Age” essence.  Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a heroic hayseed whose folksy swagger and plucky persistence lends him just as well to uncovering Baird’s whereabouts as it does to performing in swashbuckling western pictures.  Ralph Fiennes mixes the essence of Laurence Olivier with his M. Gustave character from Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) in his performance as Laurence Laurentz, a stuffy and pretentious film director who delivers obtuse stage directions with a put-upon aristocratic accent.  Scarlett Johansson, who hasn’t been seen in a Coen picture since she was a young girl in 2001’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, shows she’s emerged into full-fledged womanhood in her role as DeeAnna Moran, a feisty silver screen diva with an abrasive Transatlantic accent and a history of poor impulse control.  Tilda Swinton pulls double duty in her second performance for the Coens after 2008’s BURN AFTER READING, playing identical sisters Thora and Thessalay Thacker.  The Thacker Sisters are flip sides of the same increasingly-competitive coin: one fancies herself a serious journalist while the other is a bubbly vulture for celebrity gossip.  The aforementioned gang of Communist intellectuals consists of familiar faces like A SERIOUS MAN’s Fred Melamed and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ Alex Karpovsky, as well as Coen newbies like Dave Krumholtz and Wayne Knight.  As Burt Gurney, a star of fleet-footed patriotic musicals and the secret leader of the Communists, Channing Tatum turns in an expectedly charismatic performance.  The script provides ample opportunity for Tatum to exercise his natural flair for dance and old-fashioned showmanship– indeed, his tap dancing ability seems so natural that it’s hard to believe he had to learn it for the film.  Jonah Hill and Jack Huston turn in brief, yet memorable cameos as a bookish fall-guy kept on studio retainer and the star of Laurentz’ Merrily We Dance melodrama, respectively.  Finally, longtime Coen repertory player (and Joel’s wife) Frances McDormand tops off HAIL, CAESAR!’s eclectic ensemble with a small role as a dowdy, chainsmoking editor under Mannix’s employ.

After his brief absence from the Coen fold for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to his rightful place at their side.  During press interviews for that film, the brother signaled their suspicion that it might be their last shot on actual celluloid, but HAIL, CAESAR! delays that transition for another day, owing to their belief that film was the format to best evoke their intended period vibe.  Once again shooting on 35mm film in their usual 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Coens and Deakins infuse HAIL, CAESAR! with warm, golden tones that project a certain nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as bright saturated colors reminiscent of the early days of Technicolor.  Unlike the somber observationalism of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HAIL, CAESAR! possesses an exaggerated theatrically apropos of its subject matter, sweeping over returning production designer Jess Gonchor’s sets with classical dolly and crane-based camera movements.  The Coens show a particular stylistic zeal in their treatment of the various movies within the movie, effortlessly weaving in and out of “edited” movie sequences and actual narrative while changing their lighting setups, pacing, and even their aspect ratios to reflect the current genre they find themselves in.  These sequences are where the brothers’ heartfelt love of Old Hollywood and the visual grammar of midcentury American cinema are most realized, balancing their biting satire of film as a commercial product with an ode to the art form’s natural magic and effervescence– a miraculous medium that’s closer to the realm of dreamscape than business.  Assembled together under the guise of their editing pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes, these moments are held together with a musical cohesion that harkens back to the big-band orchestral scores of yesteryear thanks to the sprawling range of its faithful composer, Carter Burwell.  

The various technical and thematic Coen hallmarks contained within HAIL, CAESAR! makes for an effortless addition to their existing canon.  Their trademark gallows humor alternates wildly between witty character interactions and moments of exaggerated slapstick, yet never leans too heavily to one side or loses control of its fragile tone.  Their love for the history and traditions of American music can be seen through the story’s inherent musicality, especially in the freewheeling “No Dames” number.  Their longtime subversion of genre expectations– especially within the boundaries of the “caper”– also continues here, with the Coens orchestrating a complicated and convoluted plot that ultimately amounts to little more than a hill of beans.  The visual image of a briefcase full of money slipping away from its owner is a common one in the Coens’ filmography, popping up in FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and even NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.  Now, it re-appears in HAIL, CAESAR!, taking the form of a gift from the Communist intellectuals meant for their hopeful Soviet overlords that ultimately succumbs to the sea thanks to a bungled handoff.  While HAIL, CAESAR! finds the brothers once again working in their anti-genre wheelhouse, it also finds them embracing the visual conceits of genre more fully than ever.  Indeed, they figuratively rampage through midcentury cinema’s marquee genres, scratching every stylistic itch they might have ever had along the way.  

Further connecting itself to the disparate strands of the Coens’ filmography is the notion that HAIL, CAESAR!’s Capitol Pictures is in fact the very same studio featured in BARTON FINK, albeit much more bustling and vibrant than the stagnating pre-war environment we had previously seen.  There must have been a regime change following Jack Lipnick’s deployment to the front, or a switching of gears away from high-minded prestige cinema in favor of candy-coated escapist entertainment– perhaps a sly critique coming from the Coens in regards to the similar collapse of the specialty prestige sector in the late aughts that gave rise to the deluge of interconnected comic book franchises?  The territory of aggressive studio brass, pretentious directors, and dim-witted movie stars proves a fertile landscape for the brothers to color in new shades to their career-long portrait of the wealthy and the elite as absurd and out of touch.  In the Coen universe, this conceit can also apply to academics and intellectuals, evidenced in HAIL, CAESAR! with the group of Communist conspirators.  Also like BARTON FINK’s eponymous protagonist, these intellectuals frequently wax poetic about the plight of the Common Man but never actually make much of an effort to connect with them, let alone actually do something.  The Coens bestow them with none of the dignity or grace that marks their working-class characters; instead, they are inept and ineffectual, devoting themselves entirely to thought where characters like Mannix are devoted to action.  HAIL, CAESAR! also contains a notable degree of the religious humor that gave A SERIOUS MAN its comic bite, seen here through the prism of Mannix’s Christianity.  Sequences like the one in which Mannix consults with leading officials of the various major faiths over the cinematic portrayal of God and Jesus illustrate how religion fundamentally shapes the irreverent character of the Coens’ films without being overtly religious or preachy.

Hail, Casar!

The release of HAIL, CAESAR! provided some small degree of relief for the Coens after the disappointing box office reception of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, scoring $30 million in domestic receipts against a budget of $22 million.  The warm praise lavished upon the film, however, was not matched by most audiences save for the most die-hard of Coen fanatics.  The film’s lukewarm reception (combined with its distant February release date) does not bode well for its chances as a contender in the 2016 awards season– an arena in which the Coens are a perennial presence.  If the aftermarket life of their other underappreciated work is any indication, however, HAIL, CAESAR! is bound to grow in stature over time.  It may be a satire that purports to prize the supremacy of commerce over art, yet it never loses sight of that particular essence of the artistic spirit that drives the industry.  The film pays service to the idea of Hollywood as a “dream factory”, with the Coens showing us the complicated and oftentimes absurd machinery behind the veil of the silver screen.  Yet, they are dreams nonetheless, and HAIL, CAESAR! shows that, even after all these years, the Coen themselves are still gripped in thrall to the awesome magic of cinema.

HAIL, CAESAR! Is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits:

Produced by: Tim Bevan, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Eric Fellner

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Director of Photography: Roger Deakins

Production Designer: Jess Gonchor

Edited by: Roderick Jaynes

Music by:  Carter Burwell

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Page-Kirby, Kristen (2016-02-05). “‘Hail, Caesar!’ brings back Hollywood’s Golden Age, both good and bad”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Jagernauth, Kevin (May 6, 2014). “The Coen Brothers’ Next Film Will Be ‘Hail Caesar,’ New Plot Details Revealed”. Indiewire. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  4. Via Wikipedia: Lussier, Germain. “The Coen Brothers Are Going Digital – /Film”. /Film. Retrieved 2016-02-07.