To everyone who will write the words “love letter to cinema” in their Hail, Caesar! review (and to those who already did): no… don’t. Firstly, because it’s an exhausted phrase that shows little creativity on the writer’s part, but, more importantly, it completely misses the point. The Coens undoubtedly love film (they make them for a living), and their visual style is certainly an amalgamation of every director/cinematographer/editor that they admire, but Hail, Caesar! isn’t some grandiose ‘thank you’ to the Hollywood Studio system, as it bypasses love altogether and lifts film up to the status of religion. The deeply embedded and overtly prominent themes run together and commingle like the many overlapping plot lines in a succession of Hollywood genre bits — each striving to proclaim their particular form of entertainment king.
As narrator Michael Gambon keeps us on track, the characters of Hail, Caesar! go about their lives as usual, with the only difference being our participation in this ongoing drama. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), in his duties as studio head/fixer, is in perpetual motion trying to undo mistakes, corral out-of-control creatives and generally turn lemons into lemonade (or desert Westerns into rainy showdowns). Mannix’s Capitol Pictures have bet their year on a retelling of Jesus’s death (titled Hail, Caesar) as seen by a Roman soldier, played by legendary leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). As the prestige picture wraps up, Whitlock is kidnapped by “The Future” who demand $100,000 for the star’s safe return.
The anti-kidnapping thriller, Hail, Caesar! never seems to mind if its audience is boiling with tension or worried about Mannix dropping one of the balls he is constantly juggling — it is singularly aimed at forging an emotional connection between viewer and character. We laugh as the acrobatically-gifted Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) fumbles through dialogue in his first dramatic feature, and we’re enthralled by Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) dynamic musical number. Although involved with vastly different pictures and genres, these otherworldly figures are made human by virtue of the Coens’ omnipresent gaze. Without a duplicitous or evil antagonist, Hail, Caesar! frees itself from working against something, so that it can focus on unravelling the gently-tangled mystery and creating a sense of joyful exuberance in its audience.
Meandering through the backlot of Capitol Pictures, the devoutly Catholic Mannix appears transfixed by the many complexities of his work. Dubious at times, yes, but his life in pictures is regarded by the Coens as a near-saintly endeavour. Like a priest or rabbi tending to the needs of their congregations, Mannix helps with personal problems and quarrels, all in the furtherance of the almighty moving picture. In his intra-studio travels, we see musicals, luxuriant dramas, singing cowboy westerns, and aquatic marvels (á la Esther Williams), and each receives the care and attention that they deserve. As Hail, Caesar! wears on (the one we are watching, not the one being made inside the film), these diversions melt away to reveal a narrative devoted to the exultation of the medium itself, perhaps captured best by a piece of narration describing one of Doyle’s singing westerns as “another balm for the ache of a tired mankind.” Like Whitlock’s Roman soldier, the film rejects polytheism and embraces a love for the binding power of a single deity.
Hail, Caesar! is pure Coen Brothers through and through. A bit of a return to their early comedically-grounded roots, the film presents cinema as something that brings people together and as something to be celebrated. Like the films it contains, Hail, Caesar! mystifies its audience via otherworldly charm and magnificent grandeur — it is not a love letter to anything, it is a hymnal to the divine spirit of film.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.