‘Hail, Caesar!’ a Joyride through the ’50s

Christian Bolles, Columnist

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Few feelings are more satisfying than those incited when viewing a piece of entertainment that pays tribute to its own medium. Films like Hugo, books like Inkheart and games like The Beginner’s Guide occupy a special place in the annals of their respective crafts because they represent a purpose that steps outside of pure spectacle, referencing the basis on which they’re built to say something unique about the nature of their existence. Hail, Caesar! is one of these pieces, placing the viewer in the shoes of a ’50s movie mogul bent on finishing the titular film no matter what. Yet the basis for Hail goes deeper, for at its absolute core, this is a Coen Brothers movie. It bears the same tone, flies the same narrative flags and treats its characters with the same frankness as their other work. In the end, Hail, Caesar! never really escapes its premise, settling to be exactly what one would expect. Fortunately, that means that the performances are pitch-perfect, the production design sets an immersive tone and the admittedly shallow puzzle of a narrative nonetheless has nary a piece out of place.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is having a bad day. His production company’s blockbuster of the year, Hail, Caesar!, is forced to halt filming when its prestigious star, Baird Whitlock, mysteriously disappears. With a deadline looming and an intricate plot involving a shady group of men at a seaside retreat threatening his career, Mannix must race against the clock to retrieve his cherished centurion from the hands of his kidnappers.

But that’s not the point.

The film follows a single day in the life of Mannix, and the camera’s interest is not solely relegated to the burgeoning conspiracy within the ranks of Capitol Pictures. If anything, Hail aims to please, and it does so by breaking away from the central narrative every chance it gets to acquaint the viewer with the brilliantlychoreographed, absolutely hysterical scenes unfolding elsewhere in the studio.

Of its many sub-plots (though ‘recurring skits’ may be a more apt description), the most successful involve Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an actor defined by his nearly wordless roles in Westerns who has now been recruited to expand his public image through a period adaptation of a stage play called Merrily We Dance. His interactions with director Laurence Laurentz and Mannix himself are the highlights of the movie, showcasing the usual wit of the Coens in brilliantly innovative style. His growing prominence in the narrative is welcome, and his involvement in the final act proves to be the key to a satisfying ending.

Other memorable scenes include a musical/tap number by Burt Gurney and his troupe of ‘sailors’ (Channing Tatum); here, the craft of the dance is apparent, as this scene was performed in full by Tatum himself. DeeAnna Moran also (Scarlett Johansson, with an inexplicably good cigarette-ridden Brooklyn accent) underlines life at the studio well with a through-line focused on the near-oppressive control Capitol exerts over its stars.

No matter where Hail takes the viewer, its full committal to every one of its ideas sets it a cut above other films of the genre. Between the sumptuously detailed sets (the best seen in theaters since Crimson Peak), moments of comedic brilliance (including a short cameo by Jonah Hill that you won’t soon forget) and well-realized characters, it’s a beautiful, delicious angel food cake of a movie.

Unfortunately, this cake doesn’t have many layers. While the narrative takes a surprising turn, its machinations are played more for humor than anything else, and by the end of the film, it doesn’t feel as if Mannix has gotten much of anywhere since he first confessed his sins in the opening scene. None of the characters other than the producer himself get enough screen time or dialogue to establish them as much more than movie stars (with the notable exception of a dinner between Hobie and his arranged date, which is strikingly genuine and funny). Hail, then, falls victim to its glorification of the subject matter it portrays, never getting far enough past the glamour of Hollywood to leave a deep impression on the genre. Its sociopolitical elements, while certainly present, seem to be less commentary and more a trite wink to history, serving little purpose other than to introduce conflict. While the movie deals with the looming ‘end’ of the film industry, we all know that it, in fact, did not end; if anything, Hail is a celebration of ’50s film culture and nothing more.

That’s all right, though. If the viewer sets their expectations right, they’ll watch Hail, Caesar! for its glorious set pieces, witty dialogue and precise performances. Coen Brothers fans may be disappointed if another No Country for Old Men is expected, but this is still a Coen movie at heart, no matter what vitriol ‘true fans’ may fling its way. Hail, Caesar! is simply wonderful, and accepting its lack of depth may leave the audience pleasantly surprised when the curtains fall.

I give Hail, Caesar! 3 out of 4 stars.

 

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