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Hail Yes

Universal Pictures
 106 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byJoel Coen, Ethan Coen 
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney
Hail Caesar

It’s hard to believe, but the Coen brothers, creators of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, have hit pretty much of a dry spell this century when it comes to comedy. While they have received plenty of acclaim and Oscar recognition for their dramas True Grit and No Country for Old Men, their last successful comedy, both creatively and at the box office, was O Brother Where Art Thou, all the way back in 2000. Well, the drought is over with their latest, Hail Caesar.


The Coens are fans of old time Hollywood, as evidenced by some of their other films that were throwbacks to familiar genres. But in Hail Caesar, they take that fondness to a whole new level, as the movie’s subject is Hollywood itself, or, more particularly, the studio system that was on its last legs in the 1950’s. This was an era that produced the studio blacklist, but also some of the greatest musicals of all time, and the Coens both pay tribute to that system and wickedly (and hilariously) satirize it.


Hail Caesar abounds with in-jokes and thinly veiled references to real people, beginning with the lead character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix is the studio fixer, the guy who massages bruised egos, pays off people with embarrassing dirt on celebrities, and, in general, makes problems go away. In real life, there was an Eddie Mannix who was a fixer at MGM at that time and had a very bad reputation (his wife had an affair with George Reeves, which may have led to the actor’s death). The Coens’ Mannix is a kinder, gentler Eddie, a family man who can usually schmooze his way out of anything by greasing a couple of palms.


And, in Hail Caesar, Eddie’s got a lot of schmoozing to do. The studio’s big Biblical epic, not surprisingly called Hail Caesar, is due to wrap in days, but its lead actor, reigning matinee idol Baird Whitlock (Clooney) has been kidnapped by a group calling itself “The Future.” Mannix has to get him back within 24 hours and make sure no one is the wiser. The most important no ones who need to be kept in the dark are dueling twin gossip columnists with an eye for scandal, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton, channeling both Hedda Hopper and her arch-rival Louella Parsons).


That’s not the only problem Mannix has to deal with. His singing aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is pregnant (and, of course, single), a status that’s not compatible with her wholesome image. In addition, haughty auteur director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is none too pleased with Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the new leading man in the director’s latest romantic comedy. Doyle is far handier twirling a lasso than tossing off witty, sophisticated quips.


During the course of the two days in which Hail Caesar tales place, the Coens go on the set of several fictional movies, and those scenes are the best in the film. Best of all is a song-and-dance number featuring a Gene Kelly-ish Channing Tatum in a sailor suit. He and several other sailors lament the fact they are about to ship out, as they sing and dance their way through an elaborate number entitled “No Dames.”  The homoerotic overtones in this number are obvious to modern-day audiences, but the cast and crew shooting the scene seem completely oblivious.


This isn’t the only gay reference in Hail Caesar though. The Coens make it quite clear that Laurentz’s attention to Doyle is far more than directorial, a fact that seemingly everyone but Doyle is aware of. These references, coupled with a couple of late movie plot twists, allow the Coens to skewer the studios’ hypocritical attitude of the times towards homosexuality. But that’s not the only hypocrisy the Coens go after. Early in the movie, Mannix is in the unenviable position of trying to make sure that the religious references in the fictional Hail Caesar don’t offend any religious group as he acts as moderator for a rabbi, a priest, and a minister who read the script.


The Coens’ biggest target is the aforementioned Hollywood blacklist, and they do a far better, or at least funnier, job of cutting the blacklist down to size than the far more serious Trumbo managed. It seems that Whitlock’s kidnappers are a group of blacklisted writers who pass the time waiting for the ransom by giving Whitlock a lesson in economics that convinces the clueless actor (who clearly channels Robert Taylor here) that their cause is just. The Coens’ political barbs are rather evenhanded though, since they manage to skewer communism as much as they do capitalixm.


From a technical standpoint, the Coens (who also edited Hail Caesar) and cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the rich colors and feel of the color pictures of the era perfectly, but the film belongs to its ensemble cast. Surprisingly, the best performance is turned in by the relatively unheralded Ehrenreich, who holds his own against his far more illustrious co-stars. He’s a guy who gradually makes others aware that he’s a lot more aware of what’s going on than what it might seem. It’s a turn that should get him better roles in the future. His botched shooting scene with Fiennes is an example of perfect comic timing by the two of them and the good sense of the Coens to let the scene play out at length to milk it for all the laughs possible.


It goes without saying that in a movie as scattershot as Hail Caesar, not all the sequences work, and since the movie doesn’t exactly have a tightly drawn plot, it hits a few slow patches. The blacklisted screenwriters are essentially a one-joke set of characters that the Coens return to a few times too many, and the pregnancy storyline doesn’t work as well as it should. Plus, with so many familiar faces fighting for screen time, talented and funny performers like Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill are reduced to single-scene cameos.


Despite an occasional dull patch, Hail Caesar clocks in at a surprisingly short 106 minutes. And it’106 minutes that will have audiences nostalgic for the good old days, while all the well realizing that they weren’t so good in a lot of ways. The old studio system could never have produced a film as delightfully subversive as Hail Caesar, but the modern day, two-man equivalent, the Coen brothers have produced several. And fortunately, the Coen brothers’ studio has just added a comic winner to its lineup. 

Read other reviews of Hail Caesar:


Hail, Caesar! (2016) on IMDb