Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! is bound to throw off the majority of the moviegoing population. It has been advertised as a broad comedy, but it’s not. It’s farcical, like many of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, but also like their other films, it has more on its mind than mere entertainment. It’s an exploration of the meaning of art and, ultimately, life, couched as a silly celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The most similar point of connection for Hail, Caesar! is another Coens brothers film, Barton Fink, their 1991 black comedy about John Turturro's frustrated playwright struggling with writer’s block in 1940s Hollywood. In fact, the studio Barton works for shares the same name as the central setting of Hail, Caesar!: Capitol Pictures.

Hail, Caesar! is set a decade later than Barton Fink—it might even take place in the same world. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is head of physical production at the studio when the star of their biblical epic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters keen on ransoming the star for cash. As Mannix works to arrange Whitlock’s release, he also has to juggle the myriad other problems of the studio, including a unmarried pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson), a disgruntled auteur (Ralph Fiennes) struggling to coach a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) to deliver drawing room dialogue, and twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) keen for a scoop on Whitlock’s whereabouts.

Like Barton Fink, Hail, Caesar! shows Hollywood to be a place full of connivers or fools, angry fixers or empty-headed stars. However, the key difference between the films owes to the perspectives of each protagonist. While Barton thinks that movies are shallow and that all art must further the plight of the common man (similar to how the communist screenwriters in Hail, Caesar! think film can forward the dialectic), Eddie believes in the movies. “The picture has worth,” is his go-to phrase about their marquee production. He knows all the scandalous secrets of his stars and the deflating realities of how on-screen magic is produced, but still, he believes in the goal of the movies. He believes in their spiritual worth.

Where Barton Fink denigrates the movies, Hail, Caesar! celebrates them. Sure, it shows movies to often be light fluff populated by morons and callous ingrates, but it also shows them to be capable of purity—even magic. Take a song-and-dance number by Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like Burt Gurney: dressed up as a sailor in a bar with his fellow enlisted men, Burt sings about a year at sea without women while careening across the bar and tap-dancing across tables. The scene is full of hilarious homoerotic innuendo and imagery, but it’s also a perfect example of classic Hollywood entertainment: light as a feather but capable of genuine dazzlement.

Even better than Tatum’s dance number is Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobey Doyle, the B-movie singing cowboy who can’t act to save his life, but who sings like an angel and embodies a starry-eyed decency that counters any of the film’s bitterness about Hollywood. Joel and Ethan Coen might poke fun at Hobey’s dimwittedness or his inability to walk without looking like he’s dismounting a horse, but they also make him impervious to satire. Hobey’s not pretending to be anyone other than who he is, which is a decent man with a knack for guitar playing and throwing a lasso. Ehrenreich is the best part of a film with many highlights. He’s a young performer who ought to be a star after his turn here.

In the midst of all the showbiz farce is a serious examination about the meaning of life. Is the meaning of life to better your fellow human beings by raising the common standard of living, like the communist screenwriters argue? Is it to secure a stable, high-paying career, like the one a representative from Lockheed constantly offers Eddie Mannix in the private military sector? Or is it to entertain the masses, to give them a moment of respite in the midst of life’s confusions?

The film ultimately argues that the last of these options is closest to the truth, despite ribbing Hollywood’s frequent shallowness. It equates the movies with a comforting spiritual lesson: an intangible that defies reality but offers solace and meaning to a world often bereft of it.

Joel and Ethan Coen might still be satirizing Hollywood 25 years after they won the Palme d’Or with Barton Fink, but their approach has softened. In spite of their protestations, Hail, Caesar! shows that they clearly love the movies.

8 out of 10

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum.