Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, explores the extravagant goings on at Capital Pictures in 1950s Hollywood. The Golden Era of Hollywood is beautifully recreated and reflects the silliness of filmmaking at a time when studios would make the decisions at the expense of directors and producers.
This silliness is embodied in Capital Pictures’ attempts to counteract the imminent arrival of television by creating more spectacular dance routines, cheesier westerns, and the grand prestige picture: Hail, Caesar!: A Tale Of Christ’s Life—featuring global star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Despite a large portion of Hail, Caesar! is devoted to Baird Whitlock and his film, the real focus is guilt-ridden studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is tasked with keeping things ticking over, rushing from set to set to deal with the mounting problems.
These problems include key studio actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) playing a mermaid in a mesmerising underwater swimming routine, giving the studio the headache of being pregnant and unmarried, and sophisticated English director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) being furious for having to cast Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) for his English drama. The biggest headache for Mannix to unravel is on the set of Hail Caesar!, where world famous actor Baird Whitlock has been kidnapped, threatening to derail Capital Pictures’ most important film.
These forays into exuberant sets form the majority of events, which are joyous and indulgent sequences but aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of their welcome. A riff between Hobie Doyle and increasingly frustrated Laurence Laurentz—who tries to get heavy southern accented Doyle to don a sophisticated English dialect—is ludicrously long; but for many, it will be full of laughs. Similarly a dance routine featuring a tap dancing Chaning Tatum as an outbound sailor distraught at the absence of ‘dames’ on his voyage, is superbly choreographed, but is essentially irrelevant to the story despite its long routine. To anyone not spellbound by the charms of these sequences, they may seem unnecessary voyages from the plot.
The chunk of the story revolves around the capture of Whitlock, but any intrigue or suspense surrounding his kidnapping is lost to the journey through the different studio sets. Instead, the real focus is Mannix’s internal battle with the film industry itself. On the one hand he’s tempted to leave the poorly paid, painstaking fantasies of Hollywood behind and enter into a more serious business, but on the other hand—there may be joys to be found in the escapism and excitement of Hollywood. Mannix’s internal battle embodies the key questions Hail, Caesar! asks about why people make films, and whether the film industry actually means anything. This storyline is cleverly woven in, but gets lost at times under numerous gags and set pieces and ends up as a whole seeming a little incoherent.
Yet these brilliantly entertaining set pieces are enough to carry the film and are helped by some excellent performances. Clooney provides some big laughs as the simple-minded Whitlock who is put through a rollercoaster ride of surreal situations, yet seems as happy as ever. In one particular scene Whitlock enjoys a bizarre meeting with his capturers due to its educational value, and belief that it’s a ‘study session’. Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle is similarly hilarious as a cowboy singer lost in the glamourous but serious production of a classy English drama. Although given the most screen time Brolin’s Mannix is the straightest of the bunch, looking consistently weary as a stressed studio manager, but successfully holds the story together through his entertaining interactions with the cast.
Despite the long takes and large parts riding on the audience connecting with its sense of humour, Hail, Caesar! is a brilliantly entertaining celebration of Hollywood and the absurdity that is film-making.