Anyone who’s seen a Coen Brothers film has the same, incredibly clear picture of their childhood. With just one viewing, you can tell the religious fervor with which they attended films, the almost ritualistic quality they must have taken. This week it’s Ben Hur. The next it’s Fred and Ginger on re-release. It’s how they obtained the same mastery of genre that they share with Tarantino. But while Tarantino’s obsessions spin towards heady video store fare, the Coen Brothers minds spin with the glamour of old Hollywood. How else could you explain such out-of place fare as 1994s criminally underrated Hudsucker Proxy, charming yet doomed to fail by the irrelevance of Frank Capra films and screwball comedies to the 90’s sensibility. Luckily, the glitz and glam of 50’s Hollywood is always of fascination, and the whimsical confection that is “Hail, Caesar!” has found a large audience.
The attention to detail comes through in a variety of ways, subtle to overt, rapid fire from the word go. The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly, introducing us to “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of The Christ”, with everything from the typography to the melodramatic narration (carried through into the main plot) servicing the old Hollywood aesthetic. At times, it can read like a bad piece of fanfiction (“and then Roy Rogers and Carmen Miranda went on a date and ate spaghetti and it was awesome”,) but the cast has enough talent and charm to make even the movies thinner moments shine with a mirror polish.
The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Maddix (Josh Brolin), a harried studio executive trying to manage his eccentric stars. When the star of the studios high-budget Roman epic (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a cadre of communists, he kicks into high gear, trying to solve the mystery while patting down the studios daily flames. Rounding out the cast are Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelley type, Scarlett Johansson as the worlds most vulgar Esther Williams, Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists in the mold of Hedda Hopper, Ralph Fiennes as an auteur director, and a star turn by the new(-ish) Alden Ehrenreich as a lovable, way in over his head Roy Rogers type. He pulls off the role with charm, innocence, and heart, and draws forth some of the movies biggest laughs.
Of course, Hollywood in the 50’s means lavish musical numbers, and the Coen Brothers do not dissapoint. Led by Johannson and Tatum, the production numbers nail every detail right, completely embracing the feel of the original pictures while poking fun at their more flamboyant excesses. The Channing Tatum “No Dames!” number in particular manages to feel like long lost footage from a Gene Kelley extravaganza.
Admittedly, the movie can, at times, be fragmented. The episodic nature of the plot can be frustrating when you want to get back to your favorite actors or storylines, but no joke overstays its welcome, and none fall flat. It’s effective in showcasing, however, the relentless frustrations of Maddix’s career, and his quest to find meaning in his hand in producing, for all intents and purposes, glitzy schlock. While the communists pose a threat to Hollywood from the inside, the real villains of the movie are the creeping banality and malice seeping into the country at that time and darkening the lighthearted fun of Hollywood, personified as the glib, fast talking agents of Lockheed.
A fantasia of charm, clever references, and strong performances makes Hail Caesar a delight to behold. Although it would perhaps go over the head of someone disengaged from film history, for all movie buffs, the Coen Brothers have prepared a delightful feast. Dig in, cinephiles, dig in.
3 out of 4 Stars