Hail! Caesar is the latest epic written, produced and directed by the Coen Brothers. It’s an original story of Hollywood in the fifties told in fascinating ways with disparate plot threads and oddball characters, but it’s not niche or indie. It stars some of the best names in the business (even in minor roles) and is accessible to almost everybody. If anything, it’s the entertaining love child of an action mystery and a pretentious Oscar film.
The Coen Brothers are no strangers to the Oscars, with No Country for Old Men and Fargo collecting six Academy Awards in total. Mostly due to the timing of the release it is unlikely that this will be in consideration for the 2017 ceremony, which is a shame, because a film so bold and so unflinching in its thesis should be rewarded in some capacity. And despite the A-list cast it is unlikely this film will pull north of $300 million internationally, which is the audience’s loss.
After George Clooney starred in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? – written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Joel Coen – he began to tell the press about a new project the trio were working on called Hail! Caesar. Years passed and Joel Coen directed George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty, and once again the stories appeared in the press. It was a sure thing, some fifteen years in the making. After directing 2013 Oscar contender Inside Llewellyn Davis the pair wrote Angelina Jolie’s 2014 directorial debut Unbroken and Tom Hanks’ 2015 vehicle Bridge of Spies. For 2016 they cooked up a script they wished to direct themselves, got on the phone to Clooney and the rest is history.
Joining the suavest man in Hollywood is a cast from a dream world where money is no object and everybody is game. Josh Brolin is quality. He’s worked with Quinten Tarintino, Woody Allen, Joss Whedon, David O. Russel, Robert Rodriguez and more. Even in the films that weren’t hits there is no denying Brolin’s unrelenting passion. Hail! Caesar follows four or more mysteries at once and Brolin is the only thing holding it all together. There’s a reason he’s Marvel’s ultimate guy.
Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johannsson, Tilda Swinton, Francis McDormand, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill all appear for a scene or two, but acting as though the whole film revolves around them. Maybe that’s one of the jabs the Coen’s make at Hollywood and maybe it’s reflective of the calibre of the actors. Despite only a few lines a whole narrative can be inferred, giving a dimensionality that lacks nearly every other feature film of recent memory.
To try and select a standout is near-impossible. Tilda Swinton is always fantastic value and Channing Tatum delivered his increasingly more frequent surprise appearance in a critical hit act. Francis McDormand gave the audience a shock and a laugh like no other in her singular scene, but that’s more down to the scripting than her reliable delivery. It’s Johannsson’s juxtaposition from sugary starlet to temperamental bitch to coy participant that kept this reviewer wanting more.
After her stellar introduction the script swerved away and did not return. Surely it would dovetail back into Clooney’s dilemma? Another character needs a romantic interest. Surely Scarlett? Unfortunately not.
Such is the nature of the Coen’s script. Broad but not lengthy, intelligent but not high-brow, sprawling but not unmanageable, and more than anything, unpredictable. The trailers give barely anything away and over the course of the film it becomes more unclear what each character will do. They are not textbook archetypes. They are multitudes with any number of responses.
Without ruining the fantastic plot, Hail! Caesar follows Josh Brolin’s studio ‘fixer’ and his many tribulations that include a kidnapping, a pregnancy out of wedlock, a star ill-equipped for his new endeavour and a job offer. The Coen Brothers innovatively transform this into something brand new with a humourous and bright tone.
For example, for no other reason than levity or showmanship, the film is littered with a string of dynamite musical performances. It also spends large chunks of time watching in-universe dramas and rehearsals that have little or no consequence to the overall plot. And it neither weighs down the film or extends its runtime implausibly – surprisingly the whole film comes and goes in under two hours.
The confidence that permeates the story, direction and acting is something that cannot be found in a garden-variety blockbuster. The unity of the film is one of its biggest strengths, as it flicks from disparate plots involving characters that could be at home in a drama like Gone With the Wind, an old John Wayne cowboy movie, a Gene Kelly musical, a Cold War spy film or all four at once. Credit to the Coen Brothers and Josh Brolin for keeping a steady narrative amongst the chaos cannot be repeated enough.
A final mention for the innocence of the film – a doey-eyed cowboy played by previously unknown Alden Ehrenreich. Prior to this his biggest roles was the second half of a CSI two-parter, an episode of Supernatural and a Woody Allen film. This is certainly his breakout moment.
Hail! Caesar was written and directed by two men with inventive passion and confidence for their story. The cast is beyond compare and every time it looks to zig it will most certainly zag, leading to an unpredictable and entertaining ride. The Coen Brothers have done it again. Here’s to Hail! Caesar.