|Scene from Hail, Caesar!|
One of the big reasons that directors Joel and Ethan Coen continue to resonate is because they are not limited to a genre in the ways that others are. If they want to make a heist film, they make The Ladykillers. If they want to make a stoner film, they make The Big Lebowski. Their credentials feature an endless barrage of genre-shifting cinema that somehow manages to remain consistently entertaining. With their latest Hail, Caesar!, they seem to take that advice too literally and end up producing a comedy that isn't just a period piece, but a western, musical, bible epic, noir, and even an earlier period piece. To simply explain the film to someone is to suggest that what Hail, Caesar! is is actually films within films (though not in the Inception way) in their loving ode to the power of film and why they are just as tangible to audiences as religion.
The film has one sole connector among its many loose strings: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who was actually a real person, as he organizes the fictional Capitol Pictures. There's many projects going on simultaneously as he circles the various lots looking for his main actor (George Clooney), of whom he is unimpressed by his kidnap due to the constant binge drinking he participates in. As he looks for answers amid an upcoming cowboy actor who cannot act and a pregnant actress who does Esther Williams-type water musicals; he finds himself falling in and out of genres that begin to bleed into the film's structural design by the third act.
One of the film's underlying themes can be found in its title: Hail, Caesar!. While the title can literally be meant to retrieve Caesar, its other meaning can be found early on. The title is actually a fictional production of a prestige picture in which his missing actor discovers the power of Jesus (think Ben-Hur). Early on, Mannix is seen talking to a priest during confession, worried that he isn't being a good producer. Later on, Mannix confronts leaders of various religious sects to discuss the placement of Jesus within the film. It's a comical moment, but one that secretly sets up the religious symbolism for the film (the final shot drives the point home by shooting directly into the sun and clouds). Certain "deities" of the studio are never seen and Mannix's conflicts can be seen as a conflicted Catholic wishing for everything to just work out.
Of course, there's the opposition for those that don't want religion mixed with their nostalgia. The film visits many stage sets and presents the fiction initially as reality; showing actors move upon a set with breathtaking elegance. It isn't until someone flubs a line that the cracks can be seen. With some of the best low ceiling photography, the sets are revealed and process unveils into typical Coens ridiculousness. It's a film meant to literally break the fourth wall and show how silly the process actually is. Of course, it takes someone with a will like Mannix to keep it from crumbling because, contrary to everything, film is itself a belief system. Audiences must believe that they're in the Roman Empire or old west. With an embarrassingly impressive cast, the whole film manages to continually surprise at every turn. If you cannot pick out who each actor is supposed to represent, don't feel bad. Most of them are cryptic amalgamations.
What should be applauded is that Brolin gives one of his best performances in the lead role. Drawing a line between serious and comedic, he gives Mannix a complicated dynamic that makes him compelling as he ties the room together. While most were quick to highlight this being Clooney's fourth film with The Coens (he is still really good here), it should be noted that Brolin is on his third and already proving to be a charismatic force. With classic Hollywood good looks, he is somewhat of a Cary Grant for the 21st century and between this and Inherent Vice, he makes a strong case for being a new necessity to every period piece comedy. Even if he plays the straight man more often than not, he establishes himself as an indisputable talent worthy of more compelling roles like this.
The Coens should also deserve credit for impressively pulling off the tone of the film's various productions. The highlight is definitely the musical number in which Channing Tatum dances his heart out and makes the compelling case for him being a modern Gene Kelly (not to mention subtle nods to both Kelly's Anchors Aweigh and On the Town). It's the magic of cinema in bite sized chunks, both honoring the past and exploiting it as a staged production. Along with kooky reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton), the whole thing manages to have a lot of great moments and avoids feeling schizophrenic for too long. It's confident in ways that The Coens have rarely been in their comedies. However, it is also a gimmick that can wear thin at times, keeping a really compelling story from being seen as more impressive.
No matter what, The Coen Brothers have once again made an impressive movie that captures their talents and singularity. With an impressive cast to boot, Hail, Caesar! is one of their most unique in being able to be a love letter to classic cinema and religion alike in ways that are absurd yet respectful. Everything about the film may seem sporadic and uneven, but it would be difficult to show the wonders of cinema in any other way. It's a kaleidoscope of wonder that is beneficial if you have seen other early cinema (though it's not necessary). Even then, it still works as proof that even when The Coens aren't at their best, their average is still far and away better than almost everyone else's.