Hail Caesar! marks the seventeenth writing/directing effort from the Coen Brothers, and it easily ranks amongst their best work. The film centers around a day in the life of 1950’s era Hollywood film studio “fixer” (Josh Brolin), who spends the better part of twenty four hours putting out financial and public relations fires. Every second of the film is thoroughly enjoyable to watch, as the story effortlessly weaves in and out of each scenario, each as engaging as the last.
The film is peppered with an array of stars and character actors, all of whom are at their very best here. Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich all shine in their supporting roles, particularly Fiennes and Ehrenreich, who almost steal the film in their one scene together. Despite being credited above the title, Jonah Hill is given only a couple of lines (which leads one to wonder if his role was cut down in editing), though it’s still a great scene. A plethora of great character actors pop up in small roles, including Clancy Brown, Robert Picardo, Fisher Stevens, Wayne Knight, and The Guild’s Jeff Lewis. Even 80’s film icons Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren pop up (!).
As good as the supporting cast is, Hail Caesar! is a tour deforce for Brolin, who is at the top of his game here. He is absolutely engaging as the hard nosed Eddie Mannix, who, despite being incredibly confident and efficient at his job, is struggling with balancing his career and his home life. Brolin plays the character like he is one work crisis away from losing it, but keeps that just below the surface. It’s a very nuanced performance, particularly for a comedy such as this.
Like many Coen Brothers outings, Hail Caesar! is a film in character study, with a shoestring of a plot to weave their interactions together. The film definitely shares a kinship with Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski in that respect, although Brolin’s no nonsense Mannix could not be any further from Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. The brothers’ last film, Inside Llewyn Davis, took the concept of a “loose” plot a bit further, offering nothing of a narrative, but Hail Caesar! gives us at least a basic construct to work with. As the structure of Coen Brothers scripts are often relaxed, it tends to result in payoffs that aren’t quite as satisfying as most movies, but that’s part of the charm of their films. Hail Caesar! is no different, but like many of their films, it’s about the journey, not the destination (though a slightly stronger payoff to the main storyline wouldn’t have hurt here).
The film is very funny, though much of the humor is the film is quite subtle. There are very few setup/punchline laughs, but that is to be expected from the Coen Brothers, whose writing tends to find humor in the nuances of the characters themselves. The film does a fantastic job of recreating 1950’s Hollywood, and we are treated to not one, but two 1950’s era musical numbers. The first gives us Scarlett Johansson in an Ester Williams-like water number, while the second has Chatum Tanning convincingly channeling Gene Kelly in a lengthy dance sequence. Both scenes are completely gratuitous, but are they ever fun to watch.
The only place the film really falls short is with Clooney’s Baird Whitlock character, though it’s to no fault of the actor. Whitlock as a character is underdeveloped, not giving Clooney much to work with. Clooney has the acting chops and the charm to still make it work, but given the size of his role, and the importance of the character, I would have liked to see them give him a bit more to sink his teeth into, particularly after the fantastic role they gave him in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Hail Caesar! is as “Coen Brothers” as you can get, with extraordinarily nuanced characters, smart dialogue, and a minorly meandering but engaging plot. I think a great indication of how much I enjoyed the film was that I was saddened to see the end credits roll, as I wanted to spend more time with these characters.