Review: Is ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Celebrating Hollywood, Condemning It, Or Saying Nothing At All?

I'm not sure even the Coen brothers know.

At this point in their shared career, Joel and Ethan Coen’s back catalogue is extensive and eclectic enough that their admirers are not just able to pick a favourite Coen brothers film, but a favourite sort of Coen brothers film.

There’s daffy black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading), inexplicable nostalgia (The Ladykillers, True Grit), capital ‘e’ Entertainment (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Hudsucker Proxy), and definitively ‘Coen-esque’ existential meditations (Fargo, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man). But this work is often so complex that you might as well give up on the notion of categorising their ‘moods’. Is The Ladykillers not also a black comedy? Is Burn After Reading as mean-spirited as it is screwy? Coen brothers movie Wikipedia pages, with their nested lists of themes and allusions, are like conspiracy theorists’ LiveJournal accounts.

(For the record, my favourite type of Coen brothers film, and indeed, my favourite Coen brothers films are the existential weirdos: No Country For Old Men, Fargo, and A Serious Man.)

Because of all this, to admire the Coens’ oeuvre is also to argue endlessly about which of their films are over- or underrated. Which were the true masterpieces, and which ones do you absolutely loathe? (I don’t talk too often about which Coens’ flick falls into the latter category in my book, but let’s just say I can’t abide it). You need only look at the raft of “Every Coen Brothers Movie, Ranked” lists that spring up each time they release a film to see that it’s very hard for people to agree on how to arrange their catalogue.

And so it is that the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! is unleashed upon the world.

A Movie About The Movies

It’s 1951, and Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is run off his feet: he’s the “fixer” at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio from the Coens’ Barton Fink) and there’s plenty that needs fixing. Esther Williams-esque “aqua pictures” star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, Western star Hobart “Hobie” Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is struggling to fit in on the set of a genteel period picture, and worst of all, superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been drugged and kidnapped by a group called “The Future”.

Hail, Caesar! takes place over the course of 24 jam-packed hours in Mannix’s world and, as he tries to rein in the aforementioned scandals and snafus, he’s bothered by everyone from uptight directors (Ralph Fiennes) to twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton x 2) to a roundtable of religious leaders he’s corralled into a feedback session about the eponymous “prestige picture’s” scripts.

Mannix is a penitent man, often going to confession (“too often” according to the priest), who is also facing his own battle with the future: whether or not to take a well-paid job with aerospace company The Lockheed Corporation; their lackey tries to dazzle him with photos of the Bikini Atoll tests (and some gifts for his children). But we don’t know an awful lot more about him other than that he’s very good at his job, and he’s surrounded by idiots.

And, crucially for a film that is — for all intents and purposes — presenting itself as a paean to the golden age of moviemaking, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t seem to have a great deal of affection for the movie business.

The Golden Age Loses Its Shine

For all its outward glitz and lush “prestige” presentation, Hail, Caesar! is curiously empty, narratively and ideologically. It’s also frequently and deadeningly dumb.

When Mannix suggests that the single DeeAnna give birth in secret then publicly adopt her own baby, it’s a nod to the real-life Mannix’s use of the same tactic in “managing” the pregnancies and childbirths of actresses Barbara La Marr (in 1923) and Loretta Young (1937). But despite this being ample fodder for commentary — Young was allegedly date raped by Clark Gable — the Coens don’t seem to have much to say about the situation either way. Instead they simply present it as a wacky bit of studio system subterfuge.

Similarly, when the topic of communism inevitably arises, the engagement with the themes and history on hand — from the ideology itself to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s targeting of Hollywood screenwriters — isn’t much deeper than that of a Sassy Communist Memes page on Facebook. Crucially, the scenes in which it’s discussed are also crushingly dull.

Even when Gene Kelly-ish Burt Gurney, Channing Tatum livens things up with a tap-dance-heavy musical number, ‘No Dames’, the pastiche feels half-cocked and the composition half-cooked. Could the Coens not employ the services of, say, Marc Shaiman to pen a really killer song? Or is its wishy-washy-ness a comment on the ultimate hollowness of entertainment? With apologies to Mr Tatum and all the breathless “ten years of tap training in three months!” coverage, but you can also tell he’s never tapped in his life. Say what you will about Kelly and Fred Astaire’s acting abilities, but the dancing stars of the studio system were at least fleet-footed.

Though shot by genius cinematographer (and frequent Coen collaborator) Roger Deakins, the film looks bloated and overcooked, like one of those 1950s recipe cards featuring a jellied meat salad that we now shriek at with horror. As the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson put it, “It’s hard to imagine celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins shooting this thing without a gun pointed at his head.” There are some sublime moments — one, in which Hobie passes the time by amusing himself with some lasso tricks, is exquisite; Ehrenreich is one of the few stars who escapes the film unscathed — but they’re few and far between.

Ultimately, the film is like a meta-commentary on the eternal arguments of Coen believers, never sure if it’s a buoyantly nostalgic entertainment, a mean-spirited dig at Hollywood, or for that matter, a comedy. Is Mannix receiving the sins of the studio system? Will Whitlock apply a newfound communist fervour to superstardom? Who the hell knows.

In one short scene, Frances McDormand appears as a chain-smoking editor who nearly meets her maker when her silk scarf is gobbled up by a Moviola as she’s showing Mannix some rushes. It’s played for (cheap) laughs, but as she spluttered and drifted towards unconsciousness, I thought, man, I really know how she feels. I guess that’s the power of prestige pictures!

Hail, Caeser! is in cinemas now.

Clem Bastow is an award-winning writer and critic with a focus on popular culture, gender politics, mental health, and weird internet humour. She’s on Twitter at @clembastow.