A very good movie about making bad movies

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner

Country: USA     |     Run Time: 106 min

By Colin Hart

Grade: A-

Part of a continuing series taking a deep dive into the Coen bros’ extensive filmography.

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For their latest film, the Coen brothers have crafted another screwball comedy that works on many levels.  In fact, it may be the Coen-esque postmodern pastiche to end all Coen-esque postmodern pastiches—a metanarrative that has its own metanarrative.

Hail, Caesar! Is an unabashed ode to the oft-cheesy, “Golden Age of Hollywood” motion pictures produced in the 1950s.  Homoerotic tap-dancing sailors and synchronized mermaids are the basis for two particularly excellent set-pieces.  Hail, Caesar! Is also the name of the film within the film, an expensive Biblical epic starring Baird Whitlock as Roman soldier Autolycus Antoninus (all portrayed by George Clooney).

In the grand tradition of great filmmakers throughout cinematic history, the Coens have finally made their (second) movie about making movies—a love letter, an exercise in style and a crisis of faith all in one.

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Upon first viewing, Hail, Caesar! may seem like an over-the-top “zany” production as inconsequential as the types of films it seems to be spoofing.  Per usual, however, the Coens have crafted something far deeper than that.  Hail, Caesar! is neither spoof nor homage.  It is a nostalgia trip where the illusion is constantly shattered by the hustle and bustle outside the frame.

Underneath the genre mash-ups and interweaving plot threads are meditations on God and faith (a Coen favorite), movies and dreams (a critical favorite), and capitalism and communism (a philosophical favorite).  True to the Coen brothers’ postmodern ideologies, they ain’t sayin’ nuthin’.

Hail, Caesar’s final speech (talking about the film within the film here, which is near the end of the film proper anyways) could be about anything.  It could be about the studio system; it could be about God; it could be about the virtues of communism; it could be about Eddie Mannix; or it could be taken at face value: just another overwrought monologue in another overblown epic.

And whose heart is the speech coming from? Is it newly-Red actor Baird Whitlock? Repentant sinner Autolycus Antoninus? Clooney? The Coen brothers? The illusion is shattered when the actor forgets his final line: “…Faith…

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Like other Coen comedies, Hail, Caesar! is a bit of an acquired taste.  I watched it twice in a span of three days, and found myself laughing more the first time, but finding deeper meanings upon rewatch.

This is a comedy through and through, don’t get it twisted, especially by Coen standards.  The film’s innocent style of humor—based in deadpan deliveries, exasperated expressions and a committed cast—remains consistent throughout.

Debates on capitalism and the nature of God aside, the film’s funniest and most entertaining segments are the simple tributes to the art of movie making.  A lengthy tap-dancing segment featuring Channing Tatum and a group of sailors is the most memorable scene—especially when Tatum gets wedged between the asses of two dancers and bounces up and down like a Swingin’ Dinghy.

Or, how about the hilarious stupidity of good old boy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as he steps outside of Westerns and tries to act in a sophisticated film by a European auteur (played by Ralph Fiennes)?  “Would if ‘twere so simple.

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The heart and soul of the film is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” who keeps all the actors in line and attends to all the behind-the-scenes woodwork.  He’s conflicted, mostly because the job is quite possibly the toughest gig in the world.

He’s up at 5 AM to confess the previous day’s “sins” to a priest, and then he’s off to ensure that the ins and outs of the movie business keep chugging along relatively smoothly.  He pays off police to protect a promiscuous actress’ reputation; makes sure an aquatic superstar’s pregnancy won’t cause a PR blunder; chases off nosy journalists; gets the ransom money for Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping by a communist cell; wrestles with a job offer from the Lockheed Corporation; meets with actors, directors, agents, producers, editors, script girls, etc.

Eddie Mannix is the heart and soul of the motion picture industry itself, and as the film goes on and the metaphors deepen, he comes to personify the spirit of creation and persistence.  The film takes place over the course of one day (and bleeds into the next) and the biggest thing to keep in mind is that all the crazy Coen-esque goings-on are just another day’s work for Eddie Mannix, who is never not busy.

The picture doesn’t have as satisfying an end as the brothers’ other works, but it is Coen Bros. all the way.  Michael Gambon’s voiceover narration (which occurs throughout) tells us that the story of Eddie Mannix is never finished—he’s already making appointments as he begins the start of another work day.  The camera pans over the vast landscape of studios before craning up to the sky and dissolving in bright light.

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In the end, this is quite possibly the most optimistic conclusion in the Coens’ filmography.  Definitely a far cry from Barton Fink, which presents the same Hollywood (from a writer’s perspective) only 10 years earlier.

While the brothers don’t necessarily choose sides on the themes they present, they seem to at least hold a partiality towards movies.  Which is welcome and expected, considering they are movie-makers themselves, and successful ones at that.

The movies are what you make it, after all—a cruel business as dehumanizing as any other job or a doorway to dreams, depending on your place in the game.  The bright Technicolor setting becomes its own character, as films within films and spectacles within spectacles highlight all the good and bad of the Old Hollywood era.

And through it all is Eddie Mannix, a timeless and tireless figure who wants nothing more than to retain one thing: “…Faith.”  Hail, Caesar! gets better every time you watch it, and Eddie Mannix (even sounds like ‘Every Man,’ huh?)  grows more and more universal.

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