The brotherly film-making duo of Joel and Ethan Coen return with their 17th full-length feature film; one that pays homage to a lifetime of their chosen endeavour. HAIL, CAESAR! is the Coens’ take on the Hollywood studio system of old, where names like Warner and Goldwyn were the men who owned the studio, not just company names. The Coens take the opportunity to delve into the golden age of movie making and pull the veil back on an era that was - at one time - almost mythical in its status as the pre-eminent period of film production in America. HAIL, CAESAR! is entertaining for the most part, but a choppy Third Act results in a limited pay-off for the audience, with the Coens opting for a true “Hollywood” ending; where the outcome doesn’t quite match the journey.
Josh Brolin is the film’s central character, Eddie Mannix. Mannix is the Head of Physical Production at the fictional Capitol Studios in Hollywood. It’s Eddie’s job to make sure that the “kooks” and “oddballs” that make up the Capitol Studios talent roster are kept on the straight and narrow so “The Studio” can keep cranking out hit movies. One-part Manager, one-part Soothsayer and one-part Strong-armer, Eddie’s job is complicated and sees him prowling the streets of Hollywood at all hours to make sure Capitol Studios are kept out of the tabloid headlines. Eddie, however, is having a crisis of faith. He’s not so sure he wants to be part of the madness anymore and is seriously entertaining a job offer from the folks at aircraft manufacturer Lockheed.
The Coens structure their story like “A day in the life of…”, following Mannix from 4 am in the morning through to 9 am the following morning. Starting with the early morning interception of one of his stars Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) in a less-than-ideal photoshoot, Mannix moves from one crisis to another, coming up with short-term fixes that buy him just enough time to keep the cameras rolling so that Capitol Studios keeps rolling. A real problem emerges when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestige pic HAIL, CAESAR!, goes missing. Mannix assumes that Whitlock has gone on one of his famous benders, but as the day unfolds his concern grows for Whitlock and the potential financial problems the star’s disappearance creates for completion of his latest movie.
The Coens create a sense of “everyday strangeness” in all of their movies and HAIL, CAESAR! is no exception. They have a knack of being able to transform mundane, regular characters and motivate them with actions that are peculiar and, to varying degrees, dangerous. In this latest film, they decide to hone in on the Hollywood writers who had joined the Communist Party in the 1950s (among others). This motley group, who describe themselves as “The Future”, play like a bunch of undergraduate university students who discover Marxism for the first time, linking every single piece of history to the cyclical theories espoused by Karl Marx. The pinnacle of their endeavours is the abduction of Baird Whitlock; an action designed to bring Capitol Studios to a grinding halt and for “The Studio” to acknowledge their work in helping create the success it enjoys. Unfortunately for them, they’re no match for Mannix, whose problem-solving capability knows no boundaries.
HAIL, CAESAR! boasts a great cast. Brolin, for the most part, delivers Eddie Mannix like a Raymond Chandler character: hard-boiled by years of doing the same thing, but not quite as cynical. He’s a man of faith and appreciates what “The Studio” has done for him. George Clooney is a little underwhelming as Whitlock. He’s got the “Star” quality the character calls for, but doesn’t come off as quite dumb enough to so easily fall for the plans of his abductors. The real stand-out is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, Capitol’s in-house Western star who the studio’s New York owners decide they want to turn into an out-and-out Star. Ehrenreich is able to show Hobie as being completely out-of-his-depth when he’s bumped up to a “prestige” movie, but shows enough street-smarts to give Mannix some vital clues about what may have happened to Whitlock. (Never trust the Extras…)
There’s plenty of stars throughout HAIL, CAESAR! including Scarlett Johansson as the newly knocked-up leading lady DeeAnna Moran, Ralph Fiennes as the jaded & temperamental film director Laurence Laurentz, Tilda Swinton in the dual-role of competing identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, Channing Tatum as the Fred Astaire-inspired Burt Gurney, as well as Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand. Somehow though, all of this star power never quite coalesces into a great film. HAIL, CAESAR! is a solid movie and the story definitely had promise, but the Third Act doesn’t deliver any outcomes that make the viewer as though much of anything has changed. Maybe that’s the point of this film. “The Studio” (read “the system”) mandates when and how things should change and until such time comes, have faith and be grateful that everyday has a “Hollywood” ending. It’s an unusual position for the Coens to take and one that doesn’t quite work.