Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Run Time: 108 mins
Originally conceived in 2004, ’Hail, Caesar!’ is the latest film directed by the zany auteurs, the Coen Brothers behind hits such as ‘Fargo’, ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘No Country For Old Men’. It tells the story of a ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is working for Capitol Pictures, a film studio in the 1950’s who is trying to deal with the abduction of a cast member, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who disappears during filming. Unfortunately, the film was shelved until 2013 when the Coens picked it back up again after finishing on the stellar, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Critics have generally reacted positively to the film whereas audiences have been very mixed in their opinions. So do the Coens manage to continue their winning streak or is it a disappointment?
‘Hail, Caesar!’ is usual business for the Coen Brothers – they have crafted a smart and fascinating study into the film industry model and the film features some fantastic performances of the Coens’ typically quirky character creations. It brings out some of the Coen’s best qualities but they do also fall into a couple of bad habits, namely going off on a couple of completely unnecessary narrative diversions. That said, it is very easy to see why ‘Hail, Caesar!’ has been polarising to say the least. It is a film that requires multiple viewings and almost certainly a subsequent reassessment and I’m still not sure if the film’s message is genius or irrelevant. It is the ‘Inherent Vice’ of 2016.
One of the Coens’ main strengths and why one would go and watch one of their films is their ability to create vivid and quirky characters. The film really does belong to Josh Brolin and George Clooney who both are wonderful here and are given the most material to contend with. Josh Brolin, in particular, has had a brilliant year and has given good performances in films such as ‘Everest’ and ‘Sicario’. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich really shines here and is a talent to watch out for – the Coens’ were able to spot talent in him by casting him in a significant role here and it’s paid off. The rest of the cast aren’t given particularly much to do but Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand and Channing Tatum are fantastic, despite only being in a handful of scenes. Ralph Fiennes, still relatively hot off ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ continues to demonstrate a real flair for comedy and there is a particularly funny, typically Coen-like moment in the film where there is an encounter between Fiennes and Ehrenreich. Channing Tatum continues to redesign himself from the actor who would give mediocre performances in very mediocre films to someone who has really upped his game. This, in combination with his dark turn in Quentin Tarantino’s, ‘The Hateful Eight’ earlier on in the year is proof of this. He clearly seems to be a winner with what are regarded as some of the top directors in the industry. Finally, Frances McDormand (who is the wife of Joel Coen) has one scene and her portrayal is satirical, yet resemblant of this period in Hollywood cinema.
As for the Coen’s direction, they are at the top of their game in places and there are many standout sequences which demonstrate their ability. A scene early in the film details Brolin’s character discussing the religious accuracy of the portrayal of Jesus’ run-up to his crucifixion and it’s so typically Coen-like and very smartly crafted. Another standout sequence is an encounter between Ehrenreich and Fiennes which again is genius. This is what the Coen’s are best at, crafting standalone sequences that are very intelligently crafted yet a little odd. Perhaps the reason why ‘Hail, Caesar!’ hasn’t appealed to audiences as much as it has to critics is that their intelligence and carefully constructed references to other films, both historical and their own is a little too much for some audience’s grasp. That’s not to say that audiences are stupid, but in order to fully appreciate this film, you need to have a love for cinema and have some background knowledge. This film is ultimately the Coen’s love letter to cinema.
However, the Coen’s continue with their bad habit of pursuing narratives that divert from the main story and ultimately detract the audience from the film. In, ‘Hail, Caesar!’, this unfortunately happens too often particularly within the middle of the film where the Coen’s can’t quite decide what direction to take the unfolding narrative in. Now this mistake isn’t too detrimental as it can be in some of their other works but it’s what prevents the film from being brilliant as there are too many dull moments mixed in with the genius that the Coen’s are capable of. This also could be why audiences have had mixed reactions to the film.
From a technical standpoint, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stellar as usual and here, chooses to use stock film as opposed to digital to compliment the Coen’s vision. Deakins even revealed he would shoot on an iPhone if that’s how a film would look best. Roger Deakins is a cinematographer who always has a unique vision and understands how to shoot a film so it would be interesting if he ever did decide to shoot a film on an iPhone. Carter Burwell’s score is sound and is used fairly sparingly as the film is very dialogue-heavy.
Overall, ‘Hail, Caesar’ is a fascinating and satirical deconstruction into the Coen’s viewpoint of how the Hollywood studio model worked in its Golden Age and is important in how the film industry continues to function in the present day. It demonstrates a lot of the Coen’s best traits but unfortunately, the narrative does divert a little unnecessarily at times. The acting here is generally superb despite several prolific actors being sidelined and Roger Deakins continues to prove why he is one of the best cinematographers in the film industry. However, it’s very easy to see why the reception to this film has been mixed by some and it’s a film that requires several re-watches and is a film that will almost certainly require further reassessment in the future. But for a Coen Brothers film, it’s very entertaining and intelligent film but its narrative does sometimes goes off the rails.