In tackling Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Coen Brothers have made their glitziest film to date in “Hail, Caesar!,” but a couple musical numbers featuring Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are just the commercial selling points of what is actually another off-beat yet deeply philosophical film from the duo.
As such, it’s easy to see why “Hail, Caesar!” could be viewed as misleading when it turns out not to be the uproarious comedy suggested by the premise of a Hollywood studio fixer whose big movie star is kidnapped by a group called “The Future.” The first clue of this marketing misdirection is the film’s stark opening shot on a sculpture of Christ on the crucifix, followed by our discovery that the big Capitol Pictures epic feature film at the center of this movie is actual called “Hail, Casear!” with the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ.”
The religious imagery makes for an interesting contrast with the film’s plot. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man who makes Capitol Pictures’ problems go away. A last-minute star is needed for a high society Broadway adaptation? He ropes in Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and makes it work. Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran is pregnant out of wedlock? He has a plan to make the child legitimate. “Hail, Caesar!” star Baird Whitlock’s (George Clooney) disappearance, however, calls for more desperate measures.
This story plays out as more of a “week in the life” portrait of Mannix with some diversions into these other films, like a hilarious scene in which Doyle, a southern boy lacking sophistication, works with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) on his lines, or a musical number with sailors with not so subtle homo-erotic undertones. Yet this gives the story (and consequently the viewer) problems staying focused. The narrative thread just isn’t as tight or compelling as in other Coen films. Even the ending comes as a surprise, in terms of timing, because we never get a sense of the story’s arc.
The thematic threads, however, are as sharp and intriguing as ever. In addition the lens of faith being applied to the film from the get-go, the Coens bring in a Communist element in the form of Whitlock’s captors, who criticize the old Hollywood studio hierarchy, which of course has a lot of modern-day relevance in both the movie industry and in greater society. The Coens suggest that big movie studios are a microcosm of other hierarchies (including religious ones) and highlight the complex relationship between the large entity that makes everything possible, and the talents of the individuals that it comprises.
That makes “Hail, Caesar!” another great Coen film to use in teaching a film class, but doesn’t make it among their best films, at least not when you consider all the trappings (i.e. big-name stars and musical numbers) that would lead you to believe it should be among their most entertaining works.
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson