It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film trailer that so roundly misses the mark on conveying the tone of the film proper as that for Hail Caesar! Watching the trailer, the words “zany,” “madcap” or perhaps even “slapstick” come to mind. And while there are some quickly-paced changeups throughout the film, these words are an unfortunate mischaracterization. Hail Caesar! can’t be so simply defined, for all it’s candy-colored surface there is something more meditative at work here. As for the “wacky” tone of the trailer, part of me wants to blame that damned exclamation point in the title while another part of me recognizes that the industry has simply never understood Coen brothers films well enough to successfully market them in the first place.
And that’s the crux of it, the thing that any discussion of a Coen brothers film boils down to: do you get it? I don’t mean that in a condescending way, as though to imply that only the Elite Film Appreciators of America hold the keys to unlock the secret mystery of the Coens, that every film is some obscure riddle to be carefully parsed. I just mean that their films aren’t for everybody, not everyone is going to see the point (or lack thereof) or appreciate what’s at work here. While not as challenging in that sense as some of their other films, Hail Caesar! walks a careful line between presenting itself as a fluffy pastiche of the golden era of Hollywood and something a bit darker.
It all starts with and swirls around the character of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix is the tough-talking film exec tasked with keeping the talent in line at a booming Hollywood studio. This takes the form of everything from kicking in doors and roughing up a young ingénue who has found herself shooting pin-ups for extra cash to curtly handling the local gossip columnists in order to keep them in the dark. Mannix is everything to everyone, a fixer, but also a tool of a disembodied authority that occasionally phones in from New York to make threats and demands to which Mannix has no recourse but to acquiesce.
But it’s a mistake to call Mannix the hero of this story. Coen brothers films don’t often have heroes, not in the traditional sense. And if you make the mistake of placing Mannix in that role, you run into some serious problems reconciling his (often) shitty behavior with our modern expectation of fair treatment of his fellow human beings. He’s not a good guy, not in the way we expect our heroes to be. (See also; The Dude, Jerry Lundegaard, Ed Crane, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis, etc.) Mannix is the central character because that’s the way this story wants and needs to be told, not because we should have any expectation of admiring him.
It’s a shame we’ve come to the point where the film-going public and even some critics expect to always find a “good guys vs. bad guys” morality at work, and the film has suffered some criticism largely based on Mannix’s very politically incorrect attitudes and behaviors. Frankly, I think that’s missing the point. Hail Caesar! isn’t a film with a social message, it’s a bizarre look at some of the archetypes that fueled the post-war boom in cinema, warts and all. Warts especially.
Aside from the character of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and his studio-arranged romantic interest Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) there aren’t many (if any) truly likeable characters to be found. Even those briefly introduced seem to suffer some near-crippling lack of meaningful personality. Morally bankrupt, insurmountably egotistic, shockingly vapid – it’s a roll call of the shallow and narcissistic. And yet their combined efforts produce some of the most amazingly intricate and gorgeous filmmaking ever put to screen.
One of the greatest delights of Hail Caesar! is the whirlwind of genre-jumping we are treated to as the story moves from production lot to production lot. We are given glimpses of stunt-heavy cowboy film, epic period pieces, profoundly complex water ballet, dry-witted romantic drama and one of the most entertaining song and dance routines I’ve seen to date. Each of these segments are a world unto their own, a micro-environment to be sampled and savored before moving on with the plot proper. Do I feel inclined to throw around words like post-modern to describe this? I think we’re better off just taking it at surface value, a celebration and homage to the silver screen. A love letter to a bygone era.
In light of these fantastic moments, the plot itself becomes absurd in that way that only the Coens can manage. A certain hollowness is revealed, a lack of will and independence, intimating that perhaps the world is but a stage after all. It is a comic absurdity, one that we are welcomed to laugh at. A scene in which Hobie Doyle is brought away from his usual cowboy fare to take up the lead role in a romantic drama is a particular riot, not only for its fish-out-of-water juxtaposition but for how it dissects the illusion of human interaction Hollywood sells us on the screen.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how utterly fantastic Alden Ehrenreich is as Hobie. He steals every scene and is the singular heart and noble presence, hayseed though he may be, of the film. I stated earlier that Coen brothers films don’t really have heroes, but Hobie may just prove that statement inaccurate. He may not be the central character but that doesn’t make him any less of a treat.
Dialect and idiom are center stage here as well, as they often are in Coen brothers films. Their particular delight and relish in bringing vernacular to the screen may reach its peak here, as Hail Caesar! features a staggering number of variations. Each serves the purpose of giving these characters that extra bit of punch, though few are featured long enough to build the sort of rhythm that makes parlance such an indelible part of films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Still, it gives this amazingly talented cast plenty to chew on. George Clooney in particular manages to convey volumes in a handful of speeches, so fully does he bring to bear the self-focused, sun-worshipping airheaded nature of Baird Whitlock via his delivery.
There’s a lot to love here, divorced from the expectations set by the trailer. (The use of a modern dance-funk track to score this trailer will forever send me into a teeth-gnashing state of blood-boiling.) Hail Caesar! is impossibly ambitious and delivers a spectacle unlike anything we have seen from the Coen brothers before. If you are a fan, if you “get it,” I don’t doubt that you’ll be swept away.