Film Review | Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Bros return with an effervescent Hollywood satire whose cheeky depths never stunt its screwball rhythm

Teodor Reljic
18 April 2016, 8:30am
Baird essentials: George Clooney’s befuddled Hollywood star Baird Whitlock is given a lesson in Marxist dialectic
Baird essentials: George Clooney’s befuddled Hollywood star Baird Whitlock is given a lesson in Marxist dialectic
The Coen Bros are something of a modern miracle. The writer-producer-director sibling duo of Joel and Ethan boast a unique portfolio that mixes money raking arthouse successes: an oxymoron that is certainly unique in the Hollywood system, especially in this day and age when brand-recognition blockbusters are the order of the day.

From somber awards-season hits like No Country for Old Men (2007) to screwball comedies like Raising Arizona (1987) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and – perhaps most strikingly – absurdist postmodern indulgences like The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008), the Coen Bros are certainly versatile, but they’re also very, very consistent.

While their plots may occasionally seem meandering, the films are shot and performed in a way that’s completely airtight. Casting is done to perfection – even the extras are carefully selected grotesques – and the colour and mise-en-scene is pin-perfect.

Their films always look beautiful – thanks, in large part, to their regular cinematographic collaborator Roger Deakins – but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings too much.

They’re also deeply interested in the aesthetics of film genres and the inner workings of the film industry – the latter of which interest is exploited most powerfully in one of their oddest films, Barton Fink (1991). Their latest offering, a clever, zany exploration of 30s Hollywood, caters to both of these fetishes, and like ‘Fink’ plays with the idea of socialist activism within the Hollywood system.

Unlike the surreal and somewhat gloomy ‘Fink’, however, Hail, Caesar! proceeds with a light touch that doesn’t however compromise its deeper satirical core.

In Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s, Hollywood ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) – a devout Christian mulling over retirement in favour of the airline industry – finds himself in a bit of a fix when the star of his upcoming historical epic Hail Caesar, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of disgruntled socialist screenwriters.

On a mission to raise awareness about their ideological mission while reporting back to Moscow, the group puts a €100,000 ransom on Whitlock’s head, holding a scandalous secret from his past as ransom.

Mannix races to quietly collect the ransom money without gossip columnists Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton in a dual role) catching wind of it. All the while, Mannix has to keep the swirling studio circus in check, with a bimbo star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) potentially derailing a polite period drama and a starlet – DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) with an inconvenient incoming pregnancy being a potential PR disaster.  

True to the form of a proper satire, nobody really comes out in a flattering light in Coen’s send-up. Save for, oddly enough, Mannix himself, who despite being at the helm of what is clearly a strange and corrupt industry displays a moral conviction that, while it may be borne of a degree of intellectual blindness, still holds him in good stead.

But it’s an industry that is in its twilight years, the Coens seem to suggest in this period piece. And while we know that Hollywood went on beyond the 30s, its business model has certainly changed almost beyond recognition since then.

Whitlock being captured by socialist screenwriters is clearly a prolonged joke – exacerbated all the more by them having real-life Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse among their number – it also allows the Coens to pick at the industry’s very heart. It’s hard to argue, as the kidnappers’ leader appears to suggest, that  Hollywood is an adequate representation of capitalism at its worst.

But the trajectory of at least one of the characters – I won’t spoil it by saying who – suggests that the industry does actually help out “the little guy” from time to time.
A spirited comedy about a bygone age for Hollywood with a little something to tell us about how we live now.  

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...