Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Dirs: Joel & Ethan Coen
Even though this has all the hallmarks of a Coen brothers classic, with some fantastic characters and a frenetic story, it hasn’t struck me immediately as being on quite the same level as my personal favourites.
Set in classic 1950’s Hollywood, studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), has a busy few days trying to resolve issues with his cast and crew including their biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) being abducted in the middle of filming.
This isn’t exactly a film that says it’s based on a true story. Though Mannix was a real person and his real life is interesting enough, this film never sets out to tell it, more making use of the broad strokes of the figure to outline a character they then work into an original tale. There are moments where the film feels like it could almost be dramatic, especially at the start it felt like it could go either way though I knew it was a comedy. Evoking elements of the McCarthy blacklist era, featuring discussions of Communists versus a studio cleverly called ‘Capital Pictures’, there’s definitely depth here but it does quickly turn more comedic and complicated in a very Coen way. Quickly adding to the film with familiar elements such as inept criminals (here they are kidnappers), featuring an odd abduction mystery which would usually take the main focus of a film, however here it’s merely one of many threads to the story, all of which are linked as issues Eddie Mannix is attempting to handle.
Coen brothers films are often full of characters with quirks, which when put in this setting of fifties Hollywood works very well. It’s a vivid and nostalgic version of Hollywood that is both unhinged and beautiful at the same time, complete with all the techniques, vintage equipment, and some production issues that are of the era yet touch on the celebrity hungry culture of today. These include problems with the talent, one stand-out scene being a director (played superbly by Ralph Fiennes who is of course occasionally a director himself) coaching an actor who isn’t well-suited to the role, to say a line precisely, which plays as an extended gag and was used in the promotion of the film and become oft-quoted. Other challenges included getting the okay from a roundtable of religious leaders for an epic that will feature a depiction of Jesus Christ.
As you may expect, or know from the trailer and poster there are lots of great actors in this, many returning Coen collaborators and some new contributors. With all that star power you’d think they’ll all have full roles, yet most, even the biggest stars, have just one or two scenes. Only a few characters in the film are featured in any substantial amount, really the focus goes on Brolin’s Eddie Mannix who’s involved in the other characters jobs, productions and lives. For example, Jonah Hill’s character is mentioned, then in a great scene that featured in the trailers in which he’s important to certain threads, then he’s mentioned once again, that’s it. He’s a fully developed character with a fascinating role, played by an A-list actor, yet still his part is minimal. His is not the only one like that, which I felt was a little of a waste though each role was memorable even when brief.
The whole film has a feeling of artifice. There are of course the movie sets which are shown to be such when the cameras turn or we see a wide shot with all the crew around. Equally though the rest of the film feels like sets, deliberately so I’m pretty sure. There’s no distinct boundary between what’s ‘real’ and what’s staged for the films being shot. There’s one boat scene in particular, not part of a the studio lot, which looks great but completely artificial, something I felt to a greater or less degree throughout with the exception of just one or two scenes. There are also moments of narration by Michael Gambon that I wasn’t so sure about, it’s very infrequent and could be completely done away with and would hardly hinder the telling of the story.
It also feels highly edited, there are some classic style fades and cuts, yet so many parts of the film, like some of the performances, feel cut to their bare minimum with very little lingering. I think this may be why I didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, that with a runtime of just over 100 minutes, I would have liked it to take a little more time with some of these characters. There are some extended scenes that run their course, while other shots felt trimmed a little much, giving just a little more room to breathe might have allowed a chance to better absorb the details and frenetic story.
Cinematography is by Roger Deakins (one of very few of his films in recent years to not get him an Oscar nomination) who has worked with the Coens since 1991. His task here is not just to make this film look good, but also do the same for the small sections of fictional productions we see featured. There’s the eponymous epic, a western, an ‘aquatic picture’ and a nautical musical. As you might expect from Deakins it all looks beautiful, with the less-than-believable locations it reminded me of his earlier work with the Coens on ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ back in 1994, though there was a charm and oddity to that film that made the aesthetic work better. One final detail I did enjoy was how the end credits were organised by the fictional production names, ‘No Dames’, ‘Merrily we Dance’ and of course ‘The Epic Hail Caesar’.
Some critics have concluded that the film shows that the Coens hate the movies. That’s not what I got from it at all. I think the film shows how much they love the movies, wooed by the nostalgic ideals of this era of Hollywood, they are commenting on the present condition of the industry, it’s complexities and volatilities but with an overarching sense of affection. They don’t hate the movies or Hollywood, but have gotten to a point in their careers where they can point out the flaws with little fear of alienating themselves, highlighting the imperfections of a business run by business people but full of artists and performers with all their idiosyncrasies and quirks, that can often turn out some wonderful films as an end product of a crazy process. While Mannix wonders if his work matters and others pick away at his resolve, the general feeling by the end is that it’s a weird world yet essentially all worth it for the films that end up being something special.
Sadly I don’t know if this is one of those special films that makes everything worth it. The Coens have always made films with larger-than-life characters and scenarios that push the limits of credibility, yet they are usually couched in settings that feel solid, or revel more in their own absurdity as to make the artifice a strength. I am certain this warrants a second watch, as I often note there are times I see a film while not in the right state of mind for it, maybe too tired or unprepared for a certain style. I intend to watch this again soon, now knowing what to expect I hope it’ll grab me a little more and win me over as the directors have done in the past.
‘Hail, Caesar!’ is nominated for ‘Best Production Design’ at the Academy Awards in just over a week’s time. I think it’s unlikely to win as it was released so long ago just after the last Oscars ceremony and the competition is strong.