The Coen Brothers are filmmakers that do a variety of different types of works. Dark dramas, dark comedies, screwball comedies, stoner flicks, satire: and somehow, with few exceptions, they provide a quality of film that makes it feel like it’s their specialty.
After the exquisite and brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens tackle pre-Blacklist Hollywood in a part satire, part screwball comedy, part ensemble comedy.
Hail, Ceasar! is centered around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who runs Capital Studio and plays fixer to many of the stars in his lot. His main problem maker is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is the star of the studio’s most prolific film “Hail, Ceasar”. He ends up disappearing after a scene in the movie is shot. Eddie goes through the film fixing problems, including the problem with Baird.
Like most ensemble movies, there’s a through line that the film is centered on while the manic story is being played out. That through line is Mannix, who is played ably by Josh Brolin. Brolin ultimately plays straight man through out the film, while giving a sneer, winking humor to the character.
That gives the character more to chew on than in most ensemble movies, and the risk of giving him a personality other than milquetoast or a plot drone pays off when he foils off of the other different personalities in the film.
Which leads to subversive take on stars and films of that era. Of course, the personalities were exaggerated for comedic effect (Scarlett Johannson’s fowl moved ingenue), but are given just the right amount of screen time to be entertaining without being annoying.
One character that stands out, however, is Hobie Doyle played by Alden Ehrenreich. His performance as an often typecast cowboy movie actor/singer roped into being in an astute drama brings in some of the best comedy in the movie (along with a hilarious cameo by Ralph Fiennes).
Granted, Hobie is one of the few characters in the movie that has a likable personality (he’s naive, not very smart), but the way the character plays off is hilarious.
Now, here’s the thing with Hail, Ceasar!. When the Coen Brothers make a movie, they make that movie and rely on the audience to know what they should know before the movie.
So, if you aren’t aware of, or have deep knowledge of, pre-Blacklist Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s or who the real Eddie Mannix is, a good amount of the humor and satire is going to be lost on you.
Yet, even if you do have that knowledge, some of the comedy does fall flat in some cases. Namely, the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, which is the main plot thread in the movie.
Baird is played by Clooney as a self-centered, clueless puppet of sorts, which Clooney pulls off to a certain extent. But when you get past the initial kidnapping and go on through his entire narrative, it’s easily the weakest part of the movie.
Namely, there isn’t much for Clooney to work with other than smile, act self important and be a nuisance. It doesn’t make for a great broad comedy, let alone whipping satire.
Yet, Brolin and Ehrenreich are the better parts of the film and keep the film entertaining and funny.
When it comes to the Coens and their writing and directing, the movie is merely a comedy set in the period for no other reason other than to pay homage to that same style of film making.
As a straight homage, it’s okay. It makes fun of it as well (Channing Tatum’s dance numbers with a bunch of sailors was…well, you can guess), but it doesn’t have the bite that a good satire should.
It feels like “Hey, doesn’t these old movies just feel like…this in a way?” and that’s kind of it.
The basic point is that Hail, Ceasar! is “entertaining enough”. For those who are knowledgable about pre-Blacklist Hollywood and the way the system worked in that era, it’s a funny little movie that makes you go “Hmm, that’s interesting.”
And yet, this isn’t a new thing with the Coens. A Serious Man, a movie squarely centered on a certain audience, almost required a theology degree at certain points, and that was still very good.
Intolerable Cruelty, probably their most accessible film, is a satire on romantic comedies and it’s a successful one. While still being a standard romantic comedy in its Coen’s like way.
So, Hail, Ceasar!? It’s an entertaining movie, provided you know the context of the story before hand. Yes, it has a great cast. Yes, there are some funny moments. There’s even a great performance by Ehrenreich in the film as well.
In the end though, it’s on the lower pantheon of Coen Brothers films (and their comedies), but that’s still a pantheon of solid films, of which this belongs.
For a select audience.
A very select audience.