By James Hancock February 4th, 2016
I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood and a rabid fan of the Coen Brothers so when I first saw the trailer to their latest film Hail, Caesar!, I might have been a little guilty of making up my mind to like the movie in advance. Having now seen the film, I am happy to report that Hail, Caesar! is an absolute blast to watch but with a caveat that it is unlikely to unseat the #1 slot on anyone’s list of favorite movies by the Coen Brothers. Hail, Caesar! is a hysterical look at 24 hours in the life of the head of physical production at a Hollywood studio in 1951. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a Mr. Fixit who seems to carry the weight of the entire studio’s well being on his shoulders as he deals with carnivorous gossip columnists, pregnant movie stars, communist subterfuge, and a spiritual crisis forcing him to second guess what he is doing with his life. What the movie lacks in focus it more than makes up for with a delirious love song to the westerns, musicals and biblical/historical epics that Hollywood made so well at that point in its history. If you love movies, but more importantly, love the movie business (an important distinction) this is an essential movie in the filmography of the Coen Brothers.
I recently wrote a piece where I ranked all of the films by the Coen Brothers, a list that I have just now updated. Perhaps I should have seen the movie again before ranking it against the rest of their work but I’m pretty happy with placing this movie right around the middle of the pack. I have no complaints about this movie whatsoever and wouldn’t change a thing, but it would not surprise me if some people dismiss it as light entertainment. Compared to a movie like No Country for Old Men (2007), these critics would be right, but what I love about Hail, Caesar! is the total refusal to take itself seriously at any point in the film. On the surface, the story is about Eddie Mannix’s efforts to hunt down his biggest movie star who has been kidnapped as part of a communist plot to undermine the studio. But this dilemma doesn’t stop Mannix from performing all the other aspects of his job like watching dailies, recasting parts in prestige pictures, or massaging the egos of temperamental directors who might be having homosexual relationships with his actors, a rumor Mannix is desperate to put to rest. As Mannix moves from one soundstage to the next putting out proverbial fires, the Coen Brothers have a unique opportunity to experiment with a wide range of escapist fantasy films the studio has in production, essentially showing off their filmmaking chops as we get a glimpse at the different movies being made. It is during these scenes where the phenomenal cast really gets a chance to shine. This may sound like heresy to cinephiles who enjoy placing the icons of the past on a pedestal but Hail, Caesar! makes a strong case that if some of these stars had been born 70 or 80 years earlier, they very well could have been stars of the Golden Age.
Channing Tatum deserves a special shout out for his role as Burt Gurney, a tap dancer with the athletic prowess of Gene Kelly in his prime. Unlike the cringe-inducing musical numbers that Seth MacFarlane routinely shoves down our throats in his live action films, Tatum’s performance is a brilliant tip of the hat to the days when Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli were reinventing the musical. Scarlet Johansson does a solid job even if her part could have used a little more screen time. Ralph Fiennes plays his part as director Laurence Laurentz to perfection while Tilda Swinton is brilliant as rival twin gossip columnists. But the real star of the show is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an insanely athletic, singing cowboy movie star reminiscent of Gene Autry. Quietly he steals each scene in which he appears even when sharing the screen with veterans like Josh Brolin and George Clooney. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it all seemed to end much too quickly. This movie makes me wish that the Coens would write and direct a television show set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. As a shameless film history junkie who often prefers to watch documentaries about old movies rather than the actual movies, I would love to live in this world just a little while longer. It is safe to say that I will be returning to see the movie again and if you’re fan of the Coen Brothers, I am confident you will have a thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience just like I did.
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