Movie Review: "Hail, Caesar!" (2016)

I love movies about movies. Is that because I love movies in general or because I like the whole meta nature of it or, perhaps, both? Whatever the case may be, tell me I’m gong to watch a movie about making movies and I’m in. Now tell me it’s a Coen brothers movie and I’m really sold. Oh, Roger Deakins is the cinematographer? It has a stellar cast? Need I go on?

There are two big ways to view a movie with these elements – either thing the thing is going to be an over-hyped, over-stuffed movie that can’t possibly live up to expectations or, maybe, just maybe, the Coens pull it out and create something incredible… again.

For my money, even if they’ve made greater and lesser films, the Coens are two of the best, most interesting filmmakers around and even their lesser films tend to give you something to chew on. Here, with “Hail, Caesar!,” they do more than just pull it out, they offer something truly fantastic.

The film, opening this week and including that aforementioned stellar cast – Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Ehrenreich (okay, you might not know him yet, but if he keeps doing stuff like this, you will). That doesn’t even go into the cameos and truly smaller parts which feature Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, Christopher Lambert, Fisher Stevens, Robert Picardo, and so many more. Seriously, you can’t watch the movie and not think, “what, was that just…” in almost every scene.

What the Coens have done is taken this incredible cast and toss them into a story about Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer in 1951 who is just trying to keep every movie and star he has on the lot afloat. This is complicated by kidnappings, unwed women getting pregnant, gossip columnists, communists, the studio system in general, another job offer, and probably a half-dozen other things.

It is a whole lot of stuff to squeeze into a movie that clocks in at under two hours, and if there’s a criticism to be made about the movie, it is that each individual story tends to not be that deep. How can you spend that much showing the singing cowboy being transformed into an someone who can play a member of the New York upper-crust when you have to work in speeches about stuff like the mechanisms of capitalism, the exploitation of the workers, and naming names? On the other hand, it feels like a perfectly condensed version of a hypothetical year’s worth of movie gossip columns in the early 1950s.

While such a series of problems handled in something other than the film’s pithy fashion could make “Hail, Caesar!” into a scathing rebuke of Hollywood (and I’d love to see an alternate version of the film, also made by the Coen brothers, that did just that), it is much more of a love letter to an age gone by and a style of filmmaking that doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t necessarily pine for those days, but from a fabulous editing room scene to an incredible song and dance number with Tatum to a date arranged between stars for a premiere, “Hail, Caesar!” does show a love for the era.

At this point, I have to say, I’m looking at my word count, rereading my thoughts and wondering if I’ve said anything at all. I believe that the Coens once again with “Hail, Caesar!” manage to include amongst the perfect dialogue and smart story a depth many filmmakers could only hope to achieve. It may not be the depth of “Miller’s Crossing” or one of their other works, but it still surpasses the efforts of so many.

My philosophy with this site is that people don’t come for thousands upon thousands of words in a single post on a single subject. The Coens, however, lend themselves to needing thousands upon thousands of words and careful study and a multitude of comparisons. You won’t even have to look too hard on the web to find such an effort for this movie, but it’s not something I’m going to do here.

In the end, “Hail, Caesar!” gives us great filmmakers offering up wit and witticism about the way the process used to be, or the way they would have had it have been. Each and every member of the cast knocks it out of the park. Scene after scene features laugh-out-loud jokes, incredible asides, and something smart connecting it all together. Deakins is again at the top of his game, something which could be exceptionally hard as the movie forces him to ape various styles as he goes along so as to show various pieces of the films being made at the studio. But, like the Coens, he succeeds and does so in spades.  What’s more, they all make it look easy (as the film says, “would that it were so simple.”)

Again, if there is a failing in “Hail, Caesar!” it’s that it isn’t four hours long. The opportunity to sit there and watch more of the world that the Coens have put before us is something I would relish. Perhaps if we’re truly lucky, in a few years this will get the “Fargo” treatment and wind up (brilliantly) adapted for television. Or, maybe there will just be an extended cut when the film comes out on Blu-ray. Don’t wait until then to see it though, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film from first frame to last.

photo credit: Universal Pictures

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