From Golgotha to West Malibu….from Busby Berkeley to Preston Sturges to the near never-ending series of MGM musicals – if you are of a certain age, or are familiar with That’s Entertainment (from 1974), then this is an ideal film for you.
Actually Hail, Caesar begins in the confessional box in a church somewhere. It is 4 in the morning, and Eddie Mannix, played brilliantly by Josh Brolin is feeling the need to get something off his chest. It seems he’s been smoking due to the pressures of his work (running a major Hollywood studio), and he’s promised his wife that he had or would give up smoking.
So begins the Coen Brothers homage (or is it a send-up?) of the old Hollywood , circa early 1950’s, when the studios controlled the actors under the star system. Now Brolin’s Mannix runs Capitol Studios – a thinly disguised MGM – and answers only to an unseen head of the overall corporation who is based in New York or somewhere other than Hollywood.
In truth, this is a zany look at the movies from actual movies being shot – there are westerns, a biblical film (Hail, Caesar), light-hearted drawing-room comedies – many within the huge sound stages, and others on location on studio back-lots. We get to the editing process, the studio campus and commissary, and even the uniformed guard at the studio gate has a speaking role.
We get to watch a director struggling and failing to get an actor to effectively say something like, Would that it twere so simple.
But wait there’s more. There’s a kidnapping, there’s the threat of the Communist scourge, Mannix is doing a film (the film within the film that we are watching called Hail, Caesar – A Tale of the Christ) that requires him to sit down with a priest, a rabbi, a reverend, and a Greek Orthodox cleric and ask them if they’ve done a credible version of Jesus.
Now this scene falls a little short of being howlingly funny, and it is more like a take-off on an old joke – 4 clerics walk into a bar – only it is not a bar but an oak-panel board room of the film studio.
Then there is the dueling and ultra-competitive movie gossip columnists, a take off on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Only here, they are twins – Thora and Thessaly Thacker, who’s very names are a joke – try saying them together quickly – (both played by Tilda Swinton) and Brolin must keep them at bay by promising each of them that if they delay printing the latest gossip, they’d each get exclusive interviews. Clearly he cannot do that, which is yet another joke.
Channing Tatum does a singing and dancing sailor scene. While he’s no Gene Kelly, we are supposed to make the connection as if he were, and it works and was kind of fun. In the scene being filmed, sailors are about to ship out and they are bemoaning the fact that they’ll be at sea for 7 months – meaning no women.
We are heading out to sea
And however it will be,
It ain’t gonna be the same…
Cause no matter what we see
When we’re out there on the sea,
We ain’t gonna see a dame…
And so it goes.
The film is crowded with Hollywood and movie connections – Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran – a version of Esther Williams, the famed MGM swimming movie star.
When we see her she’s doing a ‘wet’ scene filmed just as if it would be had Busby Berkeley been at the helm. Her issue? She’s pregnant!
The movie director, Laurence Laurentz, is a played Ralph Fiennes, who performs the scene with the struggling cowboy actor who has now been called in to play a drawing-room comedy.
The character is called Hobie Doyle, a cowboy actor discovered in Akron, Ohio, and is played by Alden Ehrenreich, who is terrific as an actor who can’t say six little words as the director wishes.
Watch as the rest of the cast and crew does a slow burn as Laurentz struggles with his actor.
Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand have extended cameos. Hill plays Joseph Silverman, a shady accountant, and McDormand plays a noted film editor called C.C. Calhoun.
Other people wander into the film and half the fun is spotting them. Watch for Alison Pill (The Newsroom) as Mannix’s wife. David Krumholz who we saw as a shrink in The Newsroom and a political campaign manager in The Good Wife is on hand as one of the Communist Writers.
Watch for Veronica Osorio who plays the Latin American singer/dancer Carlotta Velez. This is a role modeled after Carmen Miranda, a real actress who was known for her fruity hats, and her hip wriggling. In Hail, Caesar, she gets to say a beautiful line about how she makes her dancing work –
It is all about the hips and lips, the thighs and the eyes…
Then there’s George Clooney as the studio’s biggest male star – Baird Whitlock. Now Whitlock is either an idiot, or he’s simply stupid. In any event, he’s far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here, he’s the titular Caesar.
In truth, it was kind of fun watching Clooney/Whitlock trotting about, a buffoon-ish Roman legion in a toga, sandals, metallic breast-plate and a sword which makes sitting in a chair a problematic event.
It was also rewarding to see Clooney clearly playing second fiddle to both Ehrenreich and Brolin.
So much for the description and set up. By now you must be asking – Was it any good?
Well yes and no.
The sum of the movie in its entirety is actually less than what you might score many of the individual scenes. The film is sometimes slow-paced (to a fault), many scenes go on far too long, and there’s a certain repetitiveness within the film. Like Mannix goes to confession twice, he meets an executive from another industry in the same Chinese restaurant twice, and he has maybe three walk-and-talks with his secretary.
Many jokes elicit laugh-out-loud moments from the audience. But others may be either bad or unfunny, or are simply ‘too inside’. The Coen Brothers have the status to do whatever they want, and however they choose to do it. They’ve earned it over the years.
Hail, Caesar is a fine film, and is certainly entertaining. But it is also a bit of a scattershot affair. You go from one film to another, from the search for the kidnapped actor, to dueling gossip columnists, and quite often it seems so very non-linear or doesn’t advance the story.
Actors appear and then we won’t see them again – Seinfeld’s Newman (Wayne Knight) is just one of many.
Okay, I’ll give the film a three-point seven five rating, which on a five point scale means that is pretty good despite the unevenness, and the fact that this is a film for film buffs but not necessarily film goers.