Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! left with me a feeling I’ve never felt coming off a Coen brother’s film – indifference. I suspect it’s because I am not used to the Coens in full out comedy mode. Their films over the last two decades have for the most part been amusingly dark or heftily measured and brooding but Hail, Caesar! felt like that mid-table EPL clash that comes at the tail end of the season. Not a bad thing but not necessarily expected to be sharp or investing. I reckon I was expecting something scathing given the setting but the Coens instead go for a light hearted tone doused in goofiness with mild hints of cleverness.
Hail, Caesar! looks to be set in 50s Hollywood and can be viewed as a sister to Barton Fink. We are given a near two day tour of this world by Coen regular, Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix. He is a stern gruff catholic studio executive who views his inability to properly quit smoking as sin. He is however presented with a bigger problem when the leading man of one of his pictures, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped from the set of his Biblical epic, by a quasi-cultish Communist group of writers who call themselves "The Future." This kidnapping is followed by a ransom note and irritating prying from twin gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton.
There is something resembling a subplot involving a young actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who came off as a bit of parody in my mind. He kind of has a cartoonish personality in his devotion to the ostensibly dying cowboy culture and we first meet on set playing a character who is a cross between Zorro and Woody the Cowboy. A quite funny sequence mind you. The powers that be want Mannix to usher Hobie into the less exploitation territory of romantic narratives and collaborations with esteemed European directors. Hobie is ever ready to make the jump despite the fact he appears born to play nothing but a cowboy.
This film has its interesting layers. For large portions of the film, it felt like Hobie had been plucked out of a different film, a film that wields more of a mocking tone of 1950’s Hollywood than the one Manix inhabits. Then there is the communist threat that a film like Trumbo throws some light on but here, the Coens are consistent with the goofiness as far as their handling of this communist cult is concerned. We get to know Clooney’s Whitlock better as he interacts with his kidnappers and he is pretty much in thick-headed O Brother, Where Art Thou mode and bear in mind, he is still stuck in a centurion costume from the biblical epic he was filming.
I was given a throwback to my sociology days on more than one level as we take in communists lecturing Whitlock on the tenets of socialism and Marxism. The conflict theory features prominently with as our commie writers as they try to get Whitlock to understand the theory of dialectics. The Coens go against the general tone of the film by playing some clever cards and highlighting the structures of class in the business of film and how it serves as a conduit of oppression and simultaneously revolution but I imagine all these points fly over Whitlock’s head as it is meant to be.
The substance of this film will be found at the centre of Brolin’s Manix who has to deal with the kidnapping, contemplating a massive job offer outside film and trying to quit smoking. I guess the other leading man here is Hobie but I only perked up when his character inched towards the kidnapping narrative. Aside that we get to see him do the double-dutch with lassos or try to cheat his nature by sounding eloquent enough to please Europe auteur directors. Speaking of European directors, Christopher Lambert shows up in this film as a director and boy, did his appearance leave me grinning like a goblin.
The Coens don’t overwhelm here but there is some joy to behold in this film’s overall art and production design and commitment to capturing the upbeat tempo and buoyancy of 50s Hollywood. If you dig elaborate colourful (and pointless) musical numbers, you’ll get your fair share. Roger Deakins shoots this film so insert you heralding platitude here. I suspect this film will come off as funny for most and I recognized a ton of their jokes but most of them just bounce off my Ghanaian head. Poor me for not finding this brand of humour as entertaining and universal as Brad Pitt getting shot in the face but alas, it is what it is.