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Hail, Caesar! – Review


Release Date: 5 February 2016 [USA]
Director: Ethan Coen - Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan Coen - Joel Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin - George Clooney - Alden Ehrenreich - Ralph Fiennes - Scarlett Johansson - Jonah Hill - Channing Tatum



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Posted February 29, 2016 by

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Hail Caesar! Review:

By the Coen Brothers’ very high standard, Hail Caesar! is a three-and-a-half star disappointment. It’s clever, well-acted and has sequences with zip and panache. It is also cerebral – heck it’s cerebral – and knowing about the worst fears of the House Un-American Committee. It also has contemporary resonance. But it is not up with Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men as a Coen Brothers classic.

This is the first Coen Brothers movie set over 27 hours. The action is sandwiched between two visits to the confession booth by Capitol Pictures’ quasi-religious Head of Physical Production, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Eddie has a problem: he smokes. He is also being head-hunted for his problem-solving abilities, services that are eminently required. What is it today? His swim star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has had a child out of wedlock – bad for her image. His period drama, Merrily We Dance has a leading man, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who isn’t used to speaking in movies, least of all saying, ‘would that it were so simple’. The Tinseltown gossip machine is interested in a scandal involving Hollywood heartthrob, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently filming a drama about ‘the Christ’, Hail Caesar and then there are the religious advisors to get on side.

The action is set in 1951 – the period is always important in a Coen Brothers movie – and pays homage to musicals (two), cowboy pictures, costume romances and Biblical epics. Every once in a while, the film stops, as it were, to show a movie in production. These scenes don’t push the story along. Rather they are there to remind us what Hollywood pictures used to be like, how the movies were very far from the real world of their audience and yet not quite far enough.

The plot revolves around the kidnapping of Whitlock by a group calling itself ‘the Future’. Who are they? Well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say, they make a ransom demand, one that the studio can meet. Eddie, it seems, only answers to one man, whose name he won’t hear be sullied. The Head of the Studio is given the same treatment as God Himself – one of the film’s delicious little jokes. A credit at the end of the film notes that ‘no godhead presence’ was depicted in the movie.

Hail, Caesar! is not the first Coen Brothers film to deal with moviemaking – Barton Fink, starring John Turturro and John Goodman, holds that distinction. But it is the first to delight in it. Writer-producer-director-editors Joel and Ethan Coen enjoy flitting between the mini-worlds created on sound stages and debunk some of the illusion – DeeAnna’s brassy nasal tone and young cowboy star Hobie taking out his top set of teeth. They show how celebrity couples were created back then by gossip columnists who have a name 19 million readers can trust – or twenty million, depends on the columnist. There are not a huge number of plot twists. In spite of the tight time frame, with Eddie constantly looking at his watch, the film feels quite leisurely.

In the slowball comedy, there is one poignant moment, when Eddie passes on gifts to his children from the company head-hunting him. He isn’t a bad man and he knows his industry. The Coen Brothers have had profitable relationships with producers over the years, including Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and Eddie is portrayed in a favourable light.

At its heart, Hail, Caesar! deals with the worst fear of a Hollywood movie – that it might be under the control of Communists and set out to deprave and corrupt. The denouement is so over-the-top that it is absurd that anyone could imagine it actually happening. The group known as the Future make some good points about the exploitative nature of Hollywood but they are no better themselves. It’s all done in a light-hearted way: Hail, Caesar! is one of the few Coen Brothers rated PG-13 in the USA (‘12a’ in the UK) meaning kids can see it, not that they would necessarily follow the discourse on the exploitation of the workers.

The starry cast are mostly relegated to bit parts, in particular Channing Tatum for his singing and dancing ability in a pastiche musical number entitled, No Dames! The titles of the movies within the movie have multiple meanings. ‘No Dames’ refers to the absence of women in the navy, but also that women were relegated to minor positions in the film industry – certainly no woman ran a Hollywood studio in 1951. Merrily We Dance is ironic – the film isn’t blithe at all. There is joy in seeing actors show off their party pieces: Scarlett Johansson in an Esther Williams-style sequence and, best of all, Ehrenreich making a lasso out of spaghetti.

What about that contemporary resonance? There is a terrific scene in which Eddie seeks approval from various representatives of organised religion to ensure that Hail, Caesar! doesn’t offend anyone – the leaders argue amongst themselves about the nature of God and what you can say about ‘the Christ’. One leader complains that a Roman Centurion wouldn’t be able to jump between moving chariots. The masking of scandalous behaviour is also topical. By the end, you can see why Eddie makes the choice that he does; he doesn’t want the safe option. The Coen Brothers, who regularly change their style of moviemaking to suit the subject, don’t take the safe option either. Hail them.


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Larry Oliver
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    Thank you, Larry. What a great review of ‘Hail Caesar!’ It does make me want to watch it.


    I have to play Devils Advocate here and disagree. It was the biggest let down I can remember in all my years going to the cinema.
    The cast is wasted in a an unfunny kidnap caper.
    Cinematography is stunning but its incredibly boring. I counted 10 people who walked out if the cinema. It made me want to watch a Gerard Butler movie next door. Thats unfortunate.
    What I thought would be a homage to Old Hollywood turned out to be a film without one redeeming quality.

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