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Review: Hail, Caesar!

February 29, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Hail, Caesar! PosterThe film industry is a place ripe for satire, a world where movie stars are grossly overpaid, writers are criminally undervalued, and studio heads become God-like figures overseeing it all to make sure every piece of the machine works accordingly to turn a profit.

This is the basic setup for Hail, Caesar!, the latest dark comedy from filmmaking geniuses Joel and Ethan Coen, who this time around set their sights on all the backstabbing and innerworkings of the 1950s Hollywood studio system.

The through line of the story is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is head of production and a “fixer” at Capitol Studios in 1951, where some of the biggest hits of the day are being made.  Eddie’s job is to keep blockbusters on track, while making sure the stars are happy, and not being misrepresented in the public spotlight.

When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of their upcoming biblical epic where he portrays a Roman soldier who is transformed in the presence of Jesus, is kidnapped by a mysterious group who call themselves “The Future,” Eddie must come up with the ransom money they demand, and bring back the star in order to resume production.  Although this kidnapping plot is the main narrative thread of Hail, Caesar!, and a decidedly classic Coen Brothers setup, the film also follows several different subplots, which focus on what’s happening on the other sound stages at the studio backlot.

Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a well-meaning cowboy star who struggles with actual dialogue when he’s cast in a stagey drama being directed by the pretentious and insistent filmmaker Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is the star of the studio’s hugely popular aquatic musicals, but she is being forced to hide an out of wedlock pregnancy, which would only attract negative press for the time period.  Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is sort of like their answer to Gene Kelly, a classic song and dance man who always guarantees a hit.

The film’s construction allows for multiple set-pieces and films within the film, and it’s in these scenes that Hail, Caesar! finds some of its most memorable and purely enjoyable moments.  These sequences are all allowed to go on for several minutes at a time, with Channing Tatum’s elaborate musical routine emerging as a clear standout.  It’s a showstopping production number that wouldn’t have felt out of place in an actual musical from the time, staged in a bar with all the men clad in white sailor uniforms and lamenting the lack of “dames” at sea, despite featuring clear homoerotic undertones.

Although it’s consistently breezy and entertaining to watch, at times the narrative feels a bit all over the place.  But Hail, Caesar! works exceedingly well as a Hollywood satire that pays loving homage to a variety of classic genres and styles, with deeper themes lingering just beneath the surface.  The film does have a genuine statement to make about studio control and how we are all pawns within a capitalist system, and there is also a poignant underlying conversation about how movies are at risk of becoming irrelevant, at a time when the television revolution was just starting to emerge on the horizon.

Like the Coen Brother’s previous work, Hail, Caesar! is also full of deeper religious metaphors, and in a way provides a New Testament answer to their Old Testament masterpiece, A Serious Man.  Further juxtaposition is added in the fact that they are filmmakers whose work is often rooted in their Jewish faith, and here they are exploring traditional underpinnings of Christian and Catholic beliefs.  Despite accusations of harbouring an almost nihilistic outlook for their characters, Hail, Caesar! by contrast offers a more forgiving and redemptive type of morality play for them.

The film opens with an image of a statue of Christ hanging on the cross, and we first meet Eddie Mannix, who is a devout Roman Catholic, in a confessional talking to a priest, seeking daily forgiveness for his sins.  The title card first appears projected on a movie screen when they are running dailies for the main film within the film, allowing it to somewhat ironically read Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ, another powerful suggestion that Eddie Mannix is meant to represent a Christ-like figure in the story.

Through this reading of the film, the studio represents the church, as Eddie Mannix becomes an all-seeing saviour of sorts, working for an unseen boss.  The actors are his disciples tasked with delivering his words to the masses, and a group of hypocritical communists represent the heretics.  The declining audience that the studio is trying to attract, with a biblical epic no less, becomes a metaphor of the parishioners the church is desperately trying to keep faithful.  It’s telling that the lines Baird Whitlock forgets as an actor are “passion” and “faith,” and his character is the one who is tempted with the most doubt over the course of the film, given opportunity to question his adherence to the studio system.

Perhaps the film’s best scene, a heated debate between three Christian priests and a Jewish rabbi who are brought in to discuss the historical accuracy of the fictional biblical epic, brilliantly illustrates how different religious leaders can’t seem to agree, even if they share some core beliefs.  Their conversation inevitably delves into an argument about the Godhead and parentage of Jesus, and while it works perfectly as the setup for a high concept joke, it further brings the film’s themes to the forefront in a surprisingly clever and thoughtful way.

This could be seen as a counterpart of sorts to the Coen Brothers classic psychological drama Barton Fink, taking place exactly a decade after that story of a 1940s playwright turned screenwriter trapped in a hellish hotel. The two films even share the same fictional studio name.  But where that film used its metaphor of a struggling writer for pitch black humour and some truly disturbing imagery, Hail, Caesar! is more intent on being a loving throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

This is an enjoyable and deceptively layered exploration of the hectic pace of working within the studio system, and remaining faithful to this industry even when in doubt, that becomes a highly entertaining screwball comedy in its own right.

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