The 1950s Hollywood-set Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the Joel and Ethan Coen, opened to lukewarm reviews and tepid box office totals after being dumped by its distributor in US cinemas last month.
I can understand the unappeal: this is not the directors in the mostly-serious mode of Inside Llewyn Davis or A Serious Man, nor is it a kind of goofball comedy a la Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty. It’s something in-between, hard to take seriously and not all that funny: while the director’s best films, like The Big Lebowski, manage to cover both spectrums, Caesar covers neither.
But I loved Hail, Caesar! just the same: for fans of old Hollywood pastiche this is a giddy, gleeful reproduction of life in the studio, complete with behind-the-scenes looks at a biblical epic, a Douglas Sirk melodrama, an Esther Williams synchronized swimming flick, a barroom sailor musical, and a singing cowboy western.
I didn’t care about the plot or characters – a climactic revelation, in particular, almost literally sinks on the screen – and never found the action all that funny, though there are three or four laugh-out-loud moments.
But the movie is consistently amusing, a quality sorely lacking in modern cinema. I watched it all unfold with an ear-to-ear smile, and that’s plenty enough to earn my recommendation.
Unlike the plot-heavy Lebowski, Hail, Caesar! is generally plotless: it’s a day in the life of 1950s Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who saunters around from studio set to set to take care of a variety of loosely-connected problems while being wooed for a less stressful job with weapons manufacturer Lockheed.
The general storyline is hung around the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, a Hollywood superstar currently performing in a Ben Hur-like biblical epic (the subtitle of the film he’s starring in, Hail, Caesar!, is even subtitled “A Story of the Christ”.)
After Whitlock is roofied and whisked off set, he finds himself at a seaside home surrounded by a group of… literary types. Revelations about the nature of Whitlock’s kidnappers will come without surprise, but the movie doesn’t seem to really care about them, and nor do we.
And nor does Eddie Mannix (who was a real-life figure, by the way), who goes about his daily routine from set to set in the midst of the affair. He pokes around an On the Town-like musical, with Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-like song & dance man, a pool-set affair with Scarlett Johansson as an Ester Williams mermaid, and a heady drama with Ralph Fiennes as a Douglas Sirk type.
It’s on the old sets where Hail, Caesar! really comes alive. There isn’t much underneath these sequences, in terms of the overall storyline, but the recreation of 1950s Hollywood is the best thing that the movie has going for it. On their own, as isolated vignettes, they’re irresistible pieces of the kind of Hollywood entertainment that simply doesn’t exist any longer; the musical number with Tatum is especially well-choreographed fun.
But best of all is Alden Ehrenreich as a kind of Gene Autry singing cowboy pegged by the studio head to star in Fiennes’ director’s period drama. I’ve noted Ehrenreich in various roles since Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro back in 2009, but he’s a real revelation here, and just about steals the movie: effortlessly charismatic and good-natured, I want to see an entire movie starring his genuine cowpoke.
Also on hand: Jonah Hill as an agent who works through some of the studios’ more delicate matters, Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sister gossip columnists modelled after Hedda Hopper, and Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking editor. Verónica Osorio is a delight as the Carmen Miranda-like actress Ehrenreich’s character takes to his movie’s premiere; their brief scenes together are a highlight.
You may not like Hail, Caesar!, and you won’t be alone. You might have never heard of Ester Williams or Kirby Grant or Hedda Hopper or any of the real-life films or people referenced during the film. But if you get a kick out of That’s Entertainment or 1950s Hollywood behind-the-scenes stories, the Coen Brothers’ latest film is likely to warm it’s way into your heart.