Will Schube was the last great hope of the studio system.
Just like Paul Thomas Anderson traded in his west Texas desert for a freewheeling California era, Joel and Ethan Coen have replaced the grit and dust for a prosperous California dreamscape. While PTA bit into the downfall of the hippie ideal, the Coen brothers insert themselves right at the center of a semi-fictional Hollywood studio, a factory of magic and suspended reality. This is a long journey from No Country for Old Men.
Hail Caesar! doesn’t feel as Coen Brothers-y as their other movies. And to make an un-Coen Brothers-y film is about the least Coen Brothers thing imaginable. These guys are consistency incarnate. Even when their films are narratively disparate—weaving down different avenues—the style, feel, pace, and impeccable tightness is consistent from work to work. Maybe it’s a confidence through maturation, or maybe a crisis in confidence, but no matter the diagnosis Hail Caesar! is looser and more carefree than their earlier works (it’s most reminiscent of Burn After Reading).
Its form flies through sections and styles, the only constant being the glitz and glamour of 50s Hollywood that keeps this film’s attention and obsession. In that sense, it’s very much a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. These men have succeeded for so long because their movies are passionate affairs with filmmaking. Hail Caesar is their most explicit ode yet.
Hail, Caesar! is ostensibly the story of a very crazy day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures in Hollywood. Every time someone mentions what Hollywood filmmaking really is—child’s play, a joke, numbing entertainment—Mannix tries and fails to hide a shiver. This is a film about the arduous nature of daily life, but it’s an ode to the sort of art that can save oneself from this complacency. Mannix’s operation is a whirlwind. He hides a pregnancy (Scarlett Johansson) and saves a star from Communist ties (George Clooney), all while fielding a job offer from a military contractor. And this subplot may be the film’s crux. It’s during these moments that Mannix passionately defends the filmmaking industry despite the daily wear and tear the job demands.
Manix dodges twin members of the press (both played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton) and holds a meeting between high ranking religious authorities (which also serves as the film’s funniest scene). Hail, Caesar! is also a film about the absurdity of religion, and the even greater absurdity with which Hollywood tried to exploit this obsession, but what the Coen Brothers eventually expose is that whatever artifice religiosity comes from, it’s no less a coping mechanism than filmmaking or a undying devotion to Communism. Where Caesar really diverges from typical Coen Brothers fare is in its outlandish nature. Films by this duo always feature absurd characters, plots, and an overarching chaos—yet Caesar feels different. It’s totally unhinged and freewheeling, more a reflection of its plot than its creators.
Caesar!, is best in small bits—its parts unfortunately exceed its whole. Channing Tatum’s tap dance extravaganza is both hysterical and wildly impressive, and Scarlett Johansson’s aquatic number is dazzling and mesmerizing. Jonah Hill cracks a few good jokes in a bit part, and Frances McDormand—bless her sweet heart—steals the show as she almost strangles herself while editing Hail, Caesar!. And this metaphor, nearly dying on the cutting room floor, is another flaw the film tries to cover; Caesar! just doesn’t seem as clever as their sharpest works do.
The film is hysterical and fun, but it doesn’t feel essential in the way that many Coen Brothers films do. The heavy themes of religion and Earthly meaning are touched upon, but done so out of a necessity for a consistency through their filmography. They use their all-star cast as a buoy instead of a departure point, seemingly content with all these bright shining faces on one screen together. And this, too, is perhaps a reflection of the genre they’re working in. Mannix’s real life seems to exist as noir—one of the few genres Capitol Pictures isn’t working on, which is odd considering the film’s early 50s time period—all shadows and looming voiceovers. Mannix visits confessional twice during the film’s 48 hour time frame, but his sins are never as large as he worries they are.
Eddie Mannix is a wonderful Coen Brothers character and Josh Brolin has slowly and quietly become one of our great actors. Yet like the 50s studio system, the Coen Brothers get caught up in the star game, instead of hitching a ride with their strongest driver. A good movie, certainly, but from the Coen Brothers it’s not unfair to expect more.
Rating: See this movie. Temper your expectations and you’ll have fun.