Ah, Hollywood in the ‘50s: a period marked by extravagant, glitzy productions that ranged from the biblical epics like Ben-Hur to the romantic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, and saw the rise of stars like Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly. But it is also not an unknown fact that despite the memories of grandeur associated with the era, most of these films were served to the public as fantastical escape from the fear surrounding the Cold War and the Red Scare. It is exactly this strange mix of superficial glam and underlying political conspiracies that the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have tackled in their ambitious satire Hail, Caesar!, a much needed comedic break from their serious recent works. A satire that runs from one caper to the next, the film does lose its foot at times, but the performances are hilarious and offbeat enough to keep you rooted to your seats.
Hail, Caesar! tells the tale of 28 odd hours in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures (yes, the very same from their 1991 film, Barton Fink), whose job is to fix problems both within and outside the studio that concern it. The film opens at a very crucial and decisive time for Mannix, as the studio is in the midst of making the religious period piece – from which this film itself gets its name – starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), and he is being courted by the Lockheed Corporation, a giant in the aerospace industry. As he goes about managing an entire studio that houses several productions from westerns to aqua-musicals, things keep going wrong and problems keep propping up, to which only he can find a solution. When Baird Whitlock mysteriously goes missing, Mannix finds himself being hunted down by directors, producers, gossip columnists and a shadowy organisation that calls itself ‘the Future’, only adding to his troubles with the promise he made to his wife about smoking.
Though, having watched the film to its end, I can say with confidence that the film is a satire told through the story of Eddie Mannix, the film does take its jolly time in getting it across. Indeed, the most glaring problem with Hail, Caesar! is its narrative itself, which for the most part feels stitched together from various comical sketches that fail to find a uniform voice until the second, or even third, act. This comes at the cost of having audience members, especially those not fascinated with the classical era of Hollywood or the more sophisticated comedy its satire can bring, lose interest by the time the story picks up. It is an incredibly strange film, a satire that only the deliciously unique vision of the Coen brothers can pull off, and this shows itself very strikingly in the more hilariously awkward scenes, especially one involving a study group. Needless as it is to say, each scene in isolation gains from the best of the brothers’ comedic work as seen in Barton Fink and Hudsucker Proxy, two predecessors that blended capers with more sinister elements successfully. It seems their 8-year hiatus from comedy – during which they dished out A Serious Man, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis, each fantastic in their own right – have set them back a few steps, as the film fails to flow with ease, leaving dull or unnecessary scenes here and there, making it all the more easier for the audience to tune out. However, filled with sophisticated yet oddball capers, all painted in the vibrant brushes of cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film’s positives outshine the faults.
Fortunately, where the narrative falls behind, the brilliantly offbeat performances are there to pick up the pieces and keep viewers entertained. Josh Brolin is somehow able to walk the line of authoritative, no-nonsense ‘fixer’ and endearing, conflicted soul in his enigmatic performance that drives the film and sees it to its climax. George Clooney as the movie star Baird Whitlock is, for the entirety of the film, stuck in the wardrobe of his character, Roman tribune Antonius Autolochus, and is the epitome of the naivety associated with the stars of the era. Utterly confused by his abduction, the event that sets in motion the major events of the story, he plays the part with the awkwardness that is demanded of every character in a Coen brothers’ film. While the other big names in the film – Scarlett Johannson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton – are given only short secondary roles in the film, more or less simply propelling the story forward, each portrays their character with hilarious quirks, which only add to the satire of the pretentious era. Even Frances McDormand, who might be called a muse for the brothers, is only present for a single scene as the resident editor at Capitol Studios, managing to fuel those few minutes with the offbeat energy apt for the film. However, the standout performance of the picture is that of Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Hobie Doyle, a cowboy-turned-star of action-heavy westerns (a sort-of play on the western actor Tim Holt, who later switched over to drama), as he is cast in a romantic drama directed by the snobbish Laurence Laurentz, and eventually gets mixed up in the whole affair with Whitlock. From the outright hilarity of being out of his depth in his shoot with Laurentz, to the unexpected intelligence he displays off-screen, Ehrenreich navigates the spectrum of emotion, and takes his viewers with him for the ride. While the Coen brothers may have played with many a clever joke within their screenplay, they are brought together and carried by the performances, which mix speech that is very much of the times with the exaggerated physical action that only go too well with the satire of an insecure industry taken over by superficiality.
If you hold a special place in your heart for the more romantic classic era of Hollywood (before realism seeped into every corner), then you are sure to find Hail, Caesar! unendingly delectable and captivated by the directors’ keen understanding of the era. Indeed, the care that has gone into the details equally show the directors’ own love for the golden age of Hollywood with all its pretentions and escapist productions, something quite beautifully represented here. However, the film remains ambiguous for the most part, not maintaining the tone of its ambitious satire – constantly fluctuating between slapstick comedy, political conspiracy, and religious undertones – and introducing certain elements which turn problematic with treatment. While only suitable to bring in communism and its influence on screenwriters, set as it is during the period of the Red Scare, the film falters in handling the delicate issue of the rivalling philosophies represented by the industry and the union, and perhaps would have fared better if not for its abrupt close. It is never clear as to whether the filmmakers are trying to make a point here, or if simply documenting the troubles of the golden age within its satire, but there are subtle details inserted everywhere – especially in the closing lines of Whitlock’s character – which demand closer observation. And despite all of its shortcomings of narrative and tone, Hail, Caesar! ranks neither among the worst nor the best of the brothers’ work, and far above the heaps of worse satire that have been shown on the silver screen.