Movie review: ‘Hail Caesar’

Another cinematic hit from the Coen Brothers

Elliott Puckette, Arts Editor

The Coen Brothers are some of the most recognizable names in directing. Along with creators Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, they are known for creating films with highly recognizable and unique styles and attracting all-star casts. “Hail, Caesar!” falls firmly in line with a good chunk of the Coen Brothers family of work with quirky characters, irreverence towards religion and politics, and absurdist plot elements.

Their genre-busting body of work spans almost every type of movie and include such successes as “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men.”

“Hail, Caesar!” focuses primarily on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer tasked with keeping the crazy artistic kids as well-behaved as possible and covering up their indiscretions and discrediting circumstances. The film is simply a few days in his life as he covers up an actress’s pregnancy, placates a fastidious director, redirects reporters (twins played by living artwork Tilda Swinton), ensures sensitivity in the company’s new religious epic, and battles communism. All on top of his efforts to stay close to his family, quit smoking, consider a stable government job, and be a good Catholic. It’s not easy, but as the movie explores, there’s an addictiveness to the kooky world of entertainment.

While casting throughout the film is brilliant, the one main actor who is not a big name, Alden Ehrenreich, stood out as Hobie Doyle, a bless-your-heart bewildered cowboy who gets thrown out of his westerns fishbowl by executive powers-that-be. The Coen Brothers have always had a knack for using pretty actors well, most notably George Clooney, who never shines brighter than when under their direction (let’s just forget “Intolerable Cruelty” shall we?) but also in this case Channing Tatum, who’s two scenes are the most memorable and hilarious in the whole movie.

For film and history buffs, there’s a lot to love in the details of this period comedy. In addition to the nostalgia of a huge swim routine and Gene Kelly-style dance number, the studio film production model of the ‘40s and early ‘50s is only just beginning to fade during this film, reminding us of a “simpler” time when a few production companies churned out near identical genre movies and traded performers like baseball cards. So different from now, right Disney?

The “On Wings of Eagles” punchline and conspiratorial Roman extras fit  perfectly into the history of the Roman Empire that is the setting of “Hail, Caesar!” the movie-within-the-movie.

They are gentle reminders that the customs of Golden Age Hollywood weren’t so different from those of old Rome. Both eras had a flair for the dramatic, to be sure, and rather esoteric value systems that make them seem majestic and ridiculous at the same time.

These parallels drawn between very different worlds echoes one of the Coen Brothers’ best creations, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which layered the Depression-era religious south with a retelling of “The Odyssey.” These seemingly disparate ideas came together beautifully through shared musical tradition, spirituality, and magical realism. In the same way “Hail, Caesar!” layers the capitalist entertainment machine of Hollywood and ineffectual SoCal communist artists of the 1950s with the extravagance of the Roman Empire.

Fun Fact: In the movie-within-the-movie Clooney’s character plays Autolycus, who shares his name with the grandfather of Odysseus, the figure his “O Brother” character was based on.

For all the storylines that permeate “Hail, Caesar!” it is a tad skimpy on actual plot and ends with a few too many questions left unanswered. The resolution comes so quickly you’re not prepared for the credits. Though it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than give them too much, I felt a little cheated that I couldn’t keep watching Mannix and his clients and see what happened next.

Although this particular film borders a little too closely to frivolousness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable homage to Golden Age Hollywood with enough snarky style to make Joel and Ethan fans happy and is well worth the price of admission.