Hail, Caesar! Review
Since their first movie, 1984’s Blood Simple, the Coen brothers have managed to create an impressively coherent body of work relying on singular stories, unforgettable characters, and a regular team of cast and crew.
Hail, Caesar!, their 17th feature film together, undeniably fits within this body of work. Their themes are still present and most of their regular recent collaborators have accepted to be nicely ridiculed in their genuine, but sometimes vain, homage to 50s Hollywood Cinema.
The movie follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), a fixer for Capitol Pictures (the same studio run by Michael Lerner’s Jack Lipnick in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink) who has to deal with the disappearance of the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Much was expected from the Coen brothers’ return to ensemble satirical comedies, 8 years after Burn After Reading and 18 years after The Big Lebowski. The recognition of the latter has increased so much in the collective unconscious since its release in 1998 that it will be very difficult for audiences to be objective about the two movies and, as the French saying goes, “rendre à César ce qui est à César” (literally “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, i.e. give credit where credit is due).
Although the shadow of The Dude’s movie can somewhat be felt on Hail, Casear! (kidnapping, ransom, goofy characters), the Coen brothers’ have actually made a deeper movie that its frivolous appearance of ensemble cast satirical comedy suggests: a (playful) reflexion about faith.
Their main character, Mannix, clearly relies on his religious faith. The movie opens in a confessional and throughout we witness the struggle between his fixer job and his religious faith (the several confessions to the increasingly bored priest, his secret meetings with a potential new employer in the Aviation Industry). Interestingly, to illustrate this struggle, the Coen brothers have chosen to use an era when Hollywood, although considered at its most glamourous, was also maybe at its worst decadence.
Faith is also the motivation for Whitlock’s kidnapping (political) or Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton)’s quest for truth.
Therefore, it is not a coincidence if most of the best, or funnier, scenes in the movie are in relation to this central theme (the “Jesus” meeting between Mannix and the representatives of the main religious faiths, the scenes with Whitlock’s kidnappers, the scenes between Mannix and the journalist twin sisters, or Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street)’s silent apparitions).
Hail, Caesar! is also an affectionate homage to 50s Hollywood Cinema. This is evident via their characters, whether fictional (Frances McDormand (Fargo)’s C.C. Calhoun) or loosely based on real personalities (Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation)’s Ester Williams-type actress DeeAnna Moran) and the photography, sets, costumes, and choreographies of the movies within the movie (in particular the hilariously not subtle sailor dancing scene). You can feel the Coen brothers love for their characters despite, or maybe because, most of them being associated to various levels of scandalous behaviour for the time which would now appear perfectly normal.
However, despite the interesting thematic, the spot-on reconstitution and the impressive cast of renowned, or somewhat forgotten, actors (Highlander’s fan will be delighted to see Christophe Lambert and Clancy Brown in the same movie even if they don’t share scenes together), one cannot prevent from feeling that something is missing from the whole enterprise and, at times, that the movie feels too long or not focussed enough to really remain in the collective unconscious.
Whilst this will definitely not be remembered as one of the Coen brothers’ best movies (Fargo or the recent No Country for Old Men), the fact that they can still create intelligent and funny movies nearly 30 years after Blood Simple shouldn’t be considered lightly.