When considering the Coen Brothers, one must first consider which version of the Coen Brothers we’re considering. In a way, they’re almost two entirely different sets of filmmakers—and I don’t just mean Joel and Ethan separately. As a team, their pendulum of style swings wide. There’s the epic Coens—responsible for films like Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men (among others). Then there’s the silly Coens—responsible for films like Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and A Serious Man (among others).
Their latest release, Hail, Caesar!, certainly falls in the latter category. It’s a farcical romp more attuned to Lebowski than Llewyn Davis, telling a picaresque tale of the Hollywood of old. It’s one part loving homage to the Golden Age and one part biting satire of the studio system now mythified and canonized in American lore. It’s zany, it’s madcap, it’s absurd. In other words, it’s classic Coen Brothers.
Hail, Caesar! follows a day in the life of Capitol Pictures (a name familiar to Coens fans) fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to solve an increasingly bizarre series of problems and mishaps that arise over the course of being a major Hollywood studio. There’s the missing superstar, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who was kidnapped by communists and is being held for ransom; there’s the actor who can’t act, Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich), who wants nothing more than to be a good employee despite being cast in a movie that’s clearly out of his league; there’s starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who’s invited gossip column scandal by (gasp!) becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Added to these spinning plates are the personal perils of competing job offers, maintaining a healthy home life, being a good Catholic and, oh yes, abstaining from smoking cigarettes.
The problems of the day play out almost as a series of loosely connected sketches, with characters often having nothing to do with each other aside from the fact that they happen to work for the same studio. All the while, our gruff protagonist moves from situation to situation with a kind of cold professionalism typically reserved for the hard-nosed detective. Modern narrative has trained us to expect some sort of epic ribbon to tie these disparate subplots together, but as with life there is often zero connection from one plot or one character to another aside from their coexistence.
Like any picaresque, however, that’s sort of the point. The narrative exists mostly as an excuse to get us from scene to scene, which alternate between a noirish tale of Hollywood’s Golden Age and old timey Hollywood scenes. The course of Mannix’s no good, very bad day sends him from set to set, where he witnesses the filming of Capitol Pictures’ latest crop of movie magic. Here we find the Coens at their most playful, as they lovingly craft out of context scenes in the vein of classic Hollywood motion pictures.
All of this is portrayed carefully through the glorious vision of the Coens; the scenes may be new, but they feel as timeless as the classics of yesterday, touching upon all the genre cornerstones that made Hollywood the industry it is today. Everything is a spot on recreation of the kinds of films we already know and love, as directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
That in itself would almost be enough, but the whole shebang is tied together by a wonderfully madcap story that only the Coen Brothers could imagine. It’s a nice juxtaposition between the old and the new with hilariously absurd situations and characters that feel every bit as real as they do fantastic. As it ever is with a Coen Brothers script, Hail, Caesar! is filled with fast-paced, whip-smart dialog that’s fired at a Tommy Gun’s pace with a sense of humor so dry you’ll need a glass of water.
While the picaresque structure does mean that you’ll see less of certain cast members than you’d probably like, everyone appears to be having the time of their lives playing around in the Coen Brothers’ universe. Everyone knows their caricatures and they play them up wonderfully, beautifully recalling the archetypes we’ve come to associate with the actors and actresses that populated the old time studio system. Even the minor characters, most of whom can best be described as cameos, are a delight to see. Tilda Swinton, for example, gives a hilarious dual performance as twin competing gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, each of whom are vying for a scoop on the scandals that Mannix tries to keep hidden. Be on the lookout for other standout appearances from David Krumholtz, Robert Picardo, Frances McDormand, and many others who threaten to steal the show despite their limited screen time.
Simply put, Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens at their zany best, deftly lampooning and giving homage to the cinematic Golden Age with their trademarked panache. Never once does the ball stop rolling once the madness begins, and the madness begins almost at the very outset. The comedy builds and builds towards fantastic heights as absurd new blocks get thrown into the pile. Hail, Caesar! is a wonderfully charming, delightful love letter to both Hollywood and film that absolutely begs your attention.
Hail, Caesar! is now playing in theaters everywhere.