“Hail, Caesar!,” the latest from filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen, is a screwy, bitterly comedic collage of a film — at least, when looked at on its own. However, its highly referential nature, featuring blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to everything from Hitchcock to Monty Python, does not merely ask, but demands that “Hail, Caesar!” be looked at in a larger context, just as one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
Like most Coen films, the complex plot can be explained in both a sentence and several pages detailed in full, so here is the short version: “Hail, Caesar!” follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Capitol Pictures studio executive in 1951, as he handles a series of crises, including the potential scandal posed by the pregnancy of an unwed leading actress and the kidnapping of superstar actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), all while contemplating a tempting job offer from Lockheed Corporation, an aerospace company.
Coen brothers films are known for their scattered plots, consisting of a wide array of bizarre scenes loosely connected through the involvement of a central character (in this case, Manni). Unsurprisingly, this often results in a sort of fundamental ambiguity. Their films play with numerous ideas and attitudes, and in doing so avoid committing to any one in particular. In less than two hours, “Hail, Caesar!” touches on everything from politics to religion to economics. In one early scene, Mannix is holding a conference with a rabbi, a priest, a minister and an Eastern Orthodox patriarch, wanting their approval on the theological elements of “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ,” Capitol Picture’s latest biblical epic (and blatant homage to “Ben-Hur”), still in production. Within five minutes we go from that to a mesmerizing synchronized swimming number. From that, we go directly to the set of a romantic drama, where the horribly miscast up-and-coming Western star Hobie Doyle, brilliantly played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, unsuccessfully but earnestly tries to follow the directions of the distinguished director Laurence Laurentz.
While the Coen brothers’ are known for their identity issues, their filmmaking is not. They are amongst the most easily recognizable and stylistically consistent filmmakers working today, in no small part due to their team of reoccurring collaborators both in front of the camera and behind it. The cast of “Hail, Caesar!” features a slew of Coen veterans, including Brolin, Frances McDormand and George Clooney. The crew is also largely composed of the usual suspects: composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres, among others (the Coens edit their films themselves; Roderick Jaynes, credited as the editor, is a pseudonym).
A look at the Coens’ other films makes “Hail, Caesar!” much easier to categorize as a homage to Hollywood rather than a critique. Although critical at times, the film’s attitude and overall tone is positively doting when compared to “Fargo,” or even “The Big Lebowski”—it also highlights its flaws, because “Hail, Caesar!” is a good film from a creative team from whom we have come to expect greatness.
One of the Coens’ greatest strengths has always been their characters. They are responsible for some of the most intriguing and recognizable characters to grace the silver screen in recent memory, including Marge Gunderson, the quick-witted small-town police chief who also happens to be seven months pregnant, and the iconic Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski. Unfortunately, the characters of “Hail, Caesar!” are largely unremarkable (at least by Coen standards) despite the best efforts of the film’s all-star cast. The few exceptions are worth noting. C. C. Calhoun (McDormand), a rough-mannered editor is a one- scene wonder, and Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a good-hearted, smarter-than-he-looks (or sounds) “singing cowboy” hoping to widen his appeal, is nothing short of delightful. But two out of an ensemble cast is hardly enough in such a character-centric film.
Other Coen trademarks to be found in their latest release include opening and closing narration, blackmail and kidnapping. “Hail, Caesar!” is the sixth film from the Coen brothers to feature kidnapping. Despite what the trailers would leave you to believe, kidnapping is used here much like it is in “The Big Lebowski.” It’s a plot device. But even when compared to “The Big Lebowski,” the attitude towards kidnapping in “Hail, Caesar!” is nothing short of blasé. When Whitlock wakes up in a strange house after being drugged and kidnapped, he seems far more confused than concerned. Confronting his kidnappers very quickly turns to friendly discussion. Over the course of one scene, Whitlock goes from waking up in a strange house to happily discussing economics and sharing finger sandwiches with his kidnappers, all without so much as a mention of the word “kidnapping.” It’s a very casual attitude towards a very serious topic, and considering that one of the few messages found consistently throughout the film is the idea that, in Mannix’s own words, “the picture has worth,” it’s a matter at least worth discussing. It’s not just the Coen brothers who have some questionable signature devices. Many beloved directors have their problematic trademarks, from Christopher Nolan’s dead love interests (wives especially; the only film of his to avoid this trope entirely, “Insomnia,” is also the only film of his which he was not involved in writing) to Woody Allen’s middle-aged protagonists and their barely legal conquests to just about everything that makes Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino. Discussing difficult topics is important, but making them part of your artistic signature is another thing entirely.