‘Hail, Caesar!’ Achieves Greatness Without Breaking A Sweat

Some stories feel like they were hard to tell, others seem like a breeze. Critics tend to praise filmmakers for telling the difficult stories. The hard ones are probably more cathartic for the teller too — hack a path through a dark, unexplored part of your mind and eventually emerge with a kind of closure that the viewer gets to experience vicariously. And especially with the Coens, it’s fun to watch them struggle, to let their creations drive them a little crazy. The artistic, introspective, am-I-really-a-fraud angst of Inside Llewyn Davis; the plate-spinning head trip of The Big Lebowski, where storylines never quite dovetail.

Hail, Caesar! is the opposite of that. More than anything else, the story feels like a fun-maximization device, the perfect excuse for the Coens to play in whatever genre sandbox they felt like that day: the Busby Berkeley musical number, the Bible epic, the cowboy stunt-trick picture, the sailor musical, the comedy of manners. Remember the musical dream sequence in The Big Lebowski? Hail, Caesar! is like a bunch of those, stuck together — million-dollar dick jokes delivered through dance, slapstick chiseled from marble. Imagine contemporary covers of every classic Hollywood genre as comedy vignettes, written and directed by two of Hollywood’s most detail-obsessed nerd-kings, and shot by the best cinematographer in the world, Roger Deakins. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? An idiot, that’s who. I’m not even sure “sailor musical” is a genre, but do I care? They filmed Channing Tatum singing into a man’s butt. (C-Tates can’t quite dial his hip rhythm down to the volume of a classic Hollywood tap number, which makes an already hilarious scene even funnier).

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life studio “fixer” of the same name, a kind of Hollywood The Wolf, who goes around town solving problems. In a business that attracts the neediest, horniest, most vacuous flaky weirdos from all over the world, yet insists on a strict schedule, he makes sure everything runs smoothly. When hysterical types need some sense slapped into them, Mannix does the slapping. Of course, the real-life connections are mostly beside the point. The Coens ain’t making a biopic. Mannix’s job just happens to be the perfect vehicle to wander from set to set encountering colorful characters and productions in progress. It’s big-budget, historically inspired, meticulously-realized sketch comedy.

They’ve got lots to work with here, but these actors could sex up a TPS report. When’s the last time Josh Brolin or Tilda Swinton wasn’t brilliant in something? George Clooney essentially plays George Clooney, and Scarlett Johansson does her best work in years. Jonah Hill shows up almost as an in joke, an Oscar nominee doing one day of shooting, just to be ripped on, which is wonderful. In the middle of all that, Alden Ehrenreich, a relatively unknown 26-year-old, steals the whole movie. He plays Hobie Doyle, a sort of cowboy prodigy/idiot savant, who goes from horse stunts and cowboy songs in Lazy Ol’ Moon to pearls and dinner jackets in Merrily We Danced. He’s terrible at making the transition, but maintains a positive attitude. Meanwhile, his oddball pronunciations, like “bernaners” for “bananas,” manage to be surprising even when you know they’re coming. A couple almost made me do a spit take.

While it plays brilliantly to their strengths, Hail, Caesar! is also one thing that the Coen Brothers rarely are: slick. It can be little bit jarring. With the Coens, you expect red herrings, a scene that doesn’t quite fit with the rest, a magical cat — that ambiguous indefinable. Am I disappointed that Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have a magical cat? I mean, a little. Who wouldn’t want a magical cat? But the Coens aren’t just being slick for slickness’s sake here. It’s appropriate: They’re making an homage to classic Hollywood, to a time when scandals still stung and you never introduced even the smallest prop if it wasn’t going to have a payoff. And who’s the protagonist? The studio system’s ultimate enforcer of efficiency, Eddie Mannix, the Lion of Capitalism. The slickness might be slightly un-Coen, but it’s perfectly Hail, Caesar!

In place of their usual ethereal mythmaking, Hail, Caesar! is… clever. An eagle shrieks (screeches? squawks? screams?) twice every time someone brings up On Wings As Eagles, a movie associated with scandal Baird Whitlock (Clooney’s character) is rumored to have been involved in. An editor, played by Frances McDormand, gets her scarf caught in the sprockets of her reel, just as the film is about to reach an anticipated moment. And these happen in Hail, Caesar!‘s real world, not in film-within-a-film world. I might object to some of this on paper, but the Coens happen to be really good at clever. There’s also an overarching film-as-religion theme running throughout that’s far from subtle (Eddie Mannix is devout Catholic wracked with guilt over even the most banal trivialities, “Hail, Caesar!” is a Bible epic, etc.), but offers juuust enough of the old Coen brothers’ fairy dust that things never get too literal. Another way to say it is that in Hail, Caesar!, the magical cat is Jesus. It’s an easy movie, and that’s okay. I could’ve watched Eddie Mannix going from set to set for five hours.

Grade: A

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.