American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, known collectively as the ‘Coen brothers’, are among the most respected, astute writer-directors in the film industry today. The Coens work collaboratively not only on their own feature films but also when writing for other films such as this year’s best picture Oscar nominated Spielberg film Bridge of Spies which they both co-wrote. Since their big screen début in 1984 with the neo-noir psychological crime thriller Blood Simple the Coen brothers has established themselves in the canon with several of their films becoming cult classics. Films such as Fargo (my personal favourite) and The Big Lebowski have become extremely quotable cult classics – oh ya you betcha! They are absolutely some of the best directors working today and arguably of all time. What I love most about the Coen brothers is not just the effortlessly stride of confident filmmaking they’ve gotten into after three decades in the film industry though not without a few missteps – anyone remember The Ladykillers? But their dedication to exploring deep, philosophical ideas in a fascinating often humorous and idiosyncratic style. The Coen brothers are true auteurs of cinema in every sense. A recurring theme across their filmography is their exploration of morality. The notion of morality is a very interesting one as all humans at some time have struggled with their inner sense of morality and the idea of intrinsic human morality. It’s both relatable and complex which makes for rewarding food for thought for the audience. Well, Hail, Caesar! is no exception but rather a slightly different approach than usual.
Hail, Caesar! is a film about nothing. I know that seems like very simplistic way to think about the film but that is what it is. However, that phrase “about nothing” carries more meaning than it appears. The seminal sitcom Seinfeld (my personal favourite sitcom and one of my favourite shows of all time) had a meta episode written by Larry David in which the character George Costanza (Jason Alexander) decides he can be a sitcom writer and comes up with the idea of it being “a show about nothing.” This is a meta reference to the show itself, as those familiar will know, many of the episodes consist of ostensibly mundane and regular stories which become hilarious and at times tragi-comedic through the performances of the show’s talented cast, characterisation of its main characters and the excellent writing. It is a show about nothing. In the same way, Hail, Caesar! is a film about nothing. The narrative is a traditional linear narrative with a fantastic voice-over sporadically guiding us through this world, performed by Michael Gambon (the second Dumbledore!). However, there’s nothing traditional about its plot and story.
The film is set in 1951 in Hollywood, Los Angeles. It follows the fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loosely based on a real Hollywood fixer of the same name however the Coens tone down the brutish nature of the real life man. The Eddie Mannix of Hail, Caesar! is a decent, hard-working well-meaning man working in a chaotic business. Morality isn’t a priority in the Hollywood of 1951 but it is a priority for our protagonist, Eddie Mannix. The world the Coens create in Hail, Caesar! lies somewhere between immoral and amoral. This is the height of the Cold War and the Red Scare; morality couldn’t be murkier. The Coen brothers both implicitly and explicitly represent this in Hail, Caesar!. The opening scene is a close-up shot of the crucifix introducing us to the Catholicism of Eddie Mannix and the guilt that inextricable comes with it. The humour arrives thereafter setting up what is a wryly funny as well as a slapstick and hilarious black comedy. “Bless me father for I have sinned,” says Eddie Mannix, Josh Brolin’s gravelly voice speaks in the confessional. “How long since your last confession my son?” “24 hours.” The humour here is typically Coen-esque it’s dry but not cynical. Eddie Mannix’s struggle with his faith and Catholic guilt is a moral dilemma which comes from his job as a fixer. The immoral and amoral world of 1950s Hollywood is juxtaposed with the Catholic morality that is at the centre of Eddie Mannix.
The different approach to morality that the Coens take in Hail, Caesar! is that the film is comedy that is all about morality as opposed to a drama that can be funny that deals with morality. Like a A Serious Man deals with morality perhaps in the most direct way the Coens has ever done but it is a drama not a comedy although it does have funny moments. In fact, in a particular scene Eddie Mannix has a meeting with several religious leaders in an attempt to prevent controversy from the biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, his studio Capitol Pictures is producing. The description of this scene sounds like the set up to a joke: “a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a Rabbi walk into a bar.” Except the bar is an office and disagreement ensues in a hilarious way. The dialogue in this scene is sharply written and very funny, this shows that Coens don’t just take morality seriously but they also realise how strange and funny morality especially religious can be. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t quite match up to the more direct films by the Coens such as Fargo, A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men but it is a very strong film in their oeuvre but I found it hilarious and was bursting out loud laughing throughout even more than I did watching their more direct comedy, The Big Lebowski. Hail, Caesar! is at once a pastiche of classic Hollywood cinema and at the same time a divergence from it. In a very post-modern way, the Coens unravel everything about classic Hollywood. I can see their admiration in Hail, Caesar! but I can also see a sly “here’s how things have changed.” As much as the Coen brothers love Hollywood they also want to explore the formulas Hollywood’s set up and progress from that.
In Hail, Caesar!, the location of the film in Hollywood and at Capitol Pictures allows many misadventures to happen. The film’s narrative is set up as vignettes of life in Hollywood and the technique of using screen-wipes, a traditional Hollywood transition – again pastiche – illustrates the sense of the film being a slice of life. The only thing keep the narrative’s rope from unravelling is the protagonist, Eddie Mannix. His goal is to find Baird Whitlock, brilliantly played by George Clooney (who is a very talented comic as well as dramatic actor) who has been captured and held prisoner for ransom by the Communist cell, The Future. This is the driving force for the film’s narrative but the Coens tell us that everything else that happens is worth watching just as much. They utilise the location of Capitol Pictures for several meta set-pieces for genre films the studio is producing. Such as the synchronised swimming set-piece where actress DeeAnna Moran ((Scarlett Johansson) is the lead actress in. This is gorgeously shot by frequent Coen brothers collaborator, Roger Deakins – the Academy needs to pay reparations for not giving this man an Oscar. Maybe next year, who am I kidding? Chivo will probably win again and probably deserve it too, the talented GOAT. In addition there’s the titular, major production Hail, Caesar!, a pastiche of the biblical epics of Hollywood such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments [insert similar film here]. Not to mention the cheekily homo-erotic dancing sailor set-piece with Channing Tatum dazzling with some serious moves. Seriously, everyone has dramatic and comedic chops and every performance is great. However, my personal favourite performance in Hail, Caesar! is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing Western film star he really stands out surprisingly as an unknown amidst a well-known stacked, talented cast (props to the casting director). Hobie Doyle is cast in a period drama by posh director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) in an attempt by the studio to broaden his mainstream appeal. The scene where Hobie tries to follow Laurence’s (Christian names) directions and fails in a spectacularly hilarious butchering of phrases such as “Would that it were so simple” had me rolling in my seat laughing out loud and had the unbusy cinema screen guffawing as well. Now that was a great cinematic experience, one I won’t forget, watching one of the funniest scenes in a film I’ve ever seen.
For a film about nothing, I sure do have a lot to say about Hail, Caesar! The film follows some of the formulas of classic Hollywood in its admiration but also hints towards the progress in creativity in the upcoming decades of which the Coen brothers are an important part of. It’s a multi-faceted study of morality through the protagonist, Eddie Mannix but just as importantly it’s a series of vignettes of that time and place in history. I would compare Hail, Caesar! to Inherent Vice directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. These are two sets of wholly American filmmakers. They are in love in with classic Hollywood but aren’t afraid of change, progress and doing interesting things with cinema. Inherent Vice was released to similar critical and audience reception. Reviews were mostly positive but those who took issue to it really had a bone to pick and it was more than just a few critics and spectators. Hail, Caesar! and Inherent Vice both have unusual narratives and dry humour used effectively to deal with ideological and sociologically issues in a time and place. These are confident filmmakers who aren’t afraid to take risks and doing really exciting things with cinema and that is something I’m really happy and inspired by. For a love letter to Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! lacks mawkish sentimentality but instead delivers a gut-busting, extremely entertaining film packed with laughs. It’s a shame more people aren’t going to see it. It’s complicated. Would that it would so simple.
Written by Emmanuel Omodeinde