Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

There is a scene in Hail, Caesar! where George Clooney and Josh Brolin ask you to forget about the picture business and the capitalist greed and just enjoy the magic of the movies. This wry jab is exactly what the Coen Brothers are asking their audiences: can we forget about the bottom line and just fall in love with the pictures?

At first my answer was a resounding YES! Then I realised that Ethan and Joel know better than that…

You might not think Hail, Caesar! is the most significant film you’ll see this year, but you could be wrong. Initially, I thought I’d rather sit awestruck through this masterful nod to Hollywood’s Golden Age than see one more mediocre important film. But upon further inspection, this is an important film. The Coen Brothers have done it again in this layered masterpiece about the dichotomy between pleasure and the all mighty dollar.

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The film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, big time film executive and the lifeblood of Hollywood lot, Capitol Pictures. During filming on one of his most lucrative pictures, A-list star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped leaving Mannix with the job of finding him and covering up the scandal from the press.

While watching the film, I couldn’t help but be enamored by the base level of beauty and awe that cinema can present. Creating in vignettes and not wholes, The Coen brothers show the best movie magic has to offer in Mannix’s routine visits to pictures filming on the Capitol lot. He marches through westerns, ballroom dramas, aquatic films and musical comedies. It is an absolute delight to see what each set is creating and lingering is encouraged just to see an inch more of the fantastical spaces the Coen brothers construct.  The seamless ability to know how long to say on each set and how much time to give each character is something only directors as skilled as the Coen brothers could execute so effortlessly.  Each film feels purposeful and complete despite only minimal VIP access for the viewer.

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The Coens have assembled a supreme cast of big name celebrities and charming newcomers: Channing Tatum’s first turn in a Coen Brother’s film is exceptionally genius. Having found a brilliant niche as a parody of the handsome brute, Tatum rises above his hunky roles and shows true artistic merit and comedic timing. His remarkable musical number, “No Dames” is the standout performance of the film. Tilda Swinton as twin gossip rag reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker is a great use of her exceptional comedic range and her wonderfully slight features. Relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich’s dopey cowboy, Holbie Doyle is humble and charming. Ehrenreich shows signs of a rising star both as Holbie and in a career that is likely only going up from here. Ralph Fiennes’ brief turn as the aristocratic director Laurence Laurentz is the sign of a great actor making his mark no matter how small the role. Josh Brolin truly is the glue of the film as strong and solid Mannix he weaves the narrative tightly together and grounds the film in his overt masculinity. And finally, Frances McDormand shows up for five minutes and leaves us with one of the funniest moments in the film. Plus, I’m never going to say no to some Frances McDormand.

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For all the sparkly Golden Age feel of Hail, Caesar! the film also perpetually reminds us that the film industry is above all about the almighty dollar. Behind all the glamour we have Baird’s kidnapping at the hands of Communist writers who believe everyone should get their fair share. Although tongue in cheek, there are plenty of references to the state of the movie industry and how it has become a soulless conglomerate like any other cruel-hearted business. And yet, Hail Caesar! juxtaposes its Marxist struggle with perhaps the most obvious reason why as a culture we continually forget about the business, the nothingness, the void: movies are fun! They show us incredible worlds. They make regular people larger than life. They let us escape.

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The Coen brothers in their undoubtedly simplistic film touch on a vast existential dilemma. What should we place value on? Does capitalism undercut the film industry’s artistic merit? As a society, as long as were entertained, do we really even care? Hail, Caesar! asks these questions yet simultaneously makes you forget them. It wants you to care about the cause long enough for the scene to cut, then asks you to focus on the next big picture.

And when you think about it, making you care and then making you forget once the credits roll – is that not what the movie business has continually made its millions on?

Oh those clever Coens.

  • Hail, Caesar! is released in the UK on March 4.