Old Hollywood, film sets, film directing, film production... and a kidnapping? That sounds like pure gold for the Coen Brothers, and surprisingly, Hail, Caesar! may be the most serious comedy of 2016. Despite being a dark parody about the Hollywood Industry from the 1950s, at its core, it actually tackles a complex and true human dilemma: how to live a life of faith and service in a stressful and corrupt modern world. The Coens use 1950s Hollywood as that symbol of modernity, where despite the glamour and panache of moviemaking, there’s something crazy and uncontrollable beneath the surface.
The film is presented to us as a light-hearted comedy that takes a parodic-stab at portraying and capturing the foibles of how people acted within the Hollywood film industry of the 1950s; we see the larger-than-life sins at play, like immorality, stupidity, intoxication and the like, which are all general failings of humanity. This movie presents those themes perfectly in darkly comic fashion, setting them against the dramatic backdrop of the movie trade, as well as the parasitic gossip-publication industry, as personified by Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip-columnists. But at the core, it’s about a hard-working man who is caught within a dilemma of his own in the form of a choice between two jobs: Either continue working as the amoral and illegal “fixer” of Hollywood or take up a far easier and more financially rewarding job in order to spend more time with his family. He questions which job would better serve God’s will and we see him confessing to his priest occasionally during the course of the film, and by the end, the path he ultimately chooses ends up defining him and makes him better for it.
Despite the weighty subtext, the Coens succeeds by injecting that famous quirky, offbeat humour they are famous for, as the film is superbly charming, witty and hilarious all the way through. There are plenty of comedic highlights that pack a punch and stick with you long after the film is finished, whether it’s George Clooney chewing the scenery for all it’s worth and giving his character from O Brother, Where Art Thou? A run for his money, Tilda Swinton being hilariously deadpan, Channing Tatum being an absolute goofball, or Ralph Fiennes trying to teach Alden Ehrenreich the art of dramatic acting (“Would that it were so simple”). Also, the three-minute sequence where a diverse religious group (a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest, and a Protestant minister) debates the acceptability of the movie studio's depiction of God is pure dynamite.
There are even certain sections that are gems, where the Coens’ attempt to pay homage to the classic era of Hollywood, with Scarlett Johansson synchronised swimming sequence harking back to Esther Williams, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque song and dance routine, and the production of Hail, Caesar- itself a direct parody of the dramatic epic movies of Kirk Douglas like Spartacus. Plus, Roger Deakins’ visual artistry is beautiful to behold, and further goes to show why this man is an unsung hero in the art of cinematography. The performances throughout are all charming and play off against the Coens’ script perfectly, with Josh Brolin lending real weight and gravitas to the role of Eddie Mannix, whilst rising-star Alden Ehrenreich is brilliantly witty, as he bounces off against real acting heavyweights like Brolin and Fiennes. No wonder this guy’s going to be the young Han Solo!
Charming, witty, and packed with underlying emotional beats, Hail, Caesar! is a rich film that is packed with gorgeous period detail and a cast that fits perfectly into their respective roles. While it is true that, when compared to some of the Coens’ classics like Fargo or Miller’s Crossing, Hail, Caesar! does somewhat pale in comparison, but as it stands, this remains a solid gem in the Coen Brothers’ unique filmography and manages to be a light-hearted love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
HAIL, CAESAR! / CERT: 12A / DIRECTORS & SCREENPLAY: JOEL & ETHAN COHEN / STARRING: GEORGE CLOONEY, JOSH BROLIN, ALDEN EHRENREICH, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, RALPH FIENNES, CHANNING TATUM, FRANCES MCDORMAND, TILDA SWINTON / RELEASE DATE: JULY 11TH