George Clooney and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
After my review of The Choice, which I hated, I got a slew of “why do you even review movies if you hate everything” emails, including one from a person who suggested that I just “try and put a positive spin” on my reviews. Well, to make up for my utter scorn for The Choice, here is my review of the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, which I unabashedly LOVE. It’s a fantastic movie from top to bottom, and an utter delight to watch. If you can’t find something to enjoy in Hail, Caesar!, you’re probably a monster.
Set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive and “fixer” at fictional Capitol Pictures. In real life, Eddie Mannix was the vice president of MGM, where he performed the same function as a fixer, but the movie is a fictionalized version of Mannix, and has nothing to do with his real exploits at MGM. Brolin is a particularly good fit for the 1950s era, as is George Clooney who plays dumb bunny movie star Baird Whitlock. Both actors are clearly having fun—in fact, everyone on screen down to the extras playing extras look thrilled to be there—and Clooney especially enjoys mugging for the in-film cameras like a low-rent Clark Gable (whom Whitlock name drops).
The film follows Mannix over the course of a day, which gives the Coens, who share writing, directing, and producing credits, an excuse to hop-scotch through the various screen styles of Old Hollywood. They recreate with fanatical detail scenes from an aquatic picture—featuring Scarlett Johansson as a bathing beauty dealing with an unplanned, and terribly inconvenient, pregnancy—a singing cowboy movie, a drawing room drama, a musical, and of course, the Biblical epic that lends the film its name.
There are cameos aplenty, from Coen regulars like Frances McDormand—in one of the film’s funniest bits—to newcomers like Jonah Hill and Alison Pill. Tilda Swinton also appears as twins and rival gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, and Channing Tatum is every bit as effective here as he is in The Hateful Eight. Upright Citizens Brigade alum Veronica Osorio stands out in a small role as Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda figure. But the secret weapon of Hail, Caesar! is Alden Ehrenreich (Blue Jasmine) as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle. He holds his own with Brolin, Clooney, and Ralph Fiennes, and ought to get a lot of phone calls after this.
Hail, Caesar! is essentially a farce, though it also follows the rhythm of a Christ story, with Mannix as the Christ figure. Throughout the day Mannix is tempted three times by an offer to jump careers and join the aviation company Lockheed, and as he struggles to make his decision he walks through the desert set of the fake Hail, Caesar!. And at the end, Baird Whitlock delivers a monologue for the film-within-a-film that encapsulates Mannix’s role at the studio as the man who makes other people’s sins go away. There are a lot of meta layers in Hail, Caesar!, with the in-film context and actual subtext paralleling each other neatly.
And there’s also a strong vein of how Hollywood codified queer culture during the height of McCarthyism and the cultural conservatism enforced through draconian production codes. Tatum, as a Gene Kelly-esque musical star, performs a show-stopping dance number that looks like the kind of thing that would have been discussed in The Celluloid Closet, and actors are referred to as “kooks and weirdoes”, the kind of codified language that really meant “queer” in a less progressive era.
Hail, Caesar! is, like every Coen film, packed with references and homages. The more you know about Hollywood’s golden era, the more you’ll pull from the film, but you don’t need a PhD in film studies to enjoy it. The performances are so wonderful—the way Johansson pronounces “fish ass” in a hard New York accent is killer—and the film—lensed by longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, unquestionably the greatest working cinematographer—so beautiful to look at it’s a pleasure in and of itself. There are touches of cynicism throughout, but it isn’t a cynical film. Hail, Casear! is a beautifully lit, flawlessly acted, meticulously realized love letter to Golden Age Hollywood, warts and all.
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