It’s no secret that Joel and Ethan Coen love detectives and mysteries. The vast majority of their films bear all the hallmarks of the best detective novels; a kidnapping, put-upon protagonists, red herrings, questionably successful criminals and a wide variety of colourful supporting characters. Hail, Caesar! contains all of these and more, fully embracing its heritage by being set right in the middle of the golden period for detective stories, post-World War II Hollywood.
The Coens’ natural storytelling is best suited to building a world filled with strange and weird characters that are far removed from the problems that exist outside of their own lives. The Golden Era of Filmmaking in Hollywood just lends itself to this style of storytelling, what with the behind-the-scenes turmoil that astounds many fans of the period even today.
Hail, Caesar! mainly centres around a fictionalised characterisation of real life Film Executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who works as a “Head of Physical Production” for the film’s studio Capitol Pictures. Spending most of his working day fixing the various and multitudinous issues that the studio’s stars create or encounter, to keep the studio running smoothly in the eyes of the public, Mannix is the typical Coen’s put-upon protagonist. These various problems build up the framework of the film as the loosely connected stories interweave and form a day in the life of Mannix.
We see him go from solving the problem of a starlet who is pregnant out of wedlock, an Auteur director who has a Western star thrust into his latest “serious drama” and a kidnapped star of the studio’s latest prestige picture, dealing with the story of Christ, that forms the main focus in the film. We also see Mannix being courted by another job that would allow him more time with his family and more pay but his loyalty to the film studio keeps him second guessing.
With quick shots of Mannix looking at his watch abound in this film, the audience is shown that Eddie’s life is a frantic one that switches from problem to problem, encountering all the colourful characters along the way in various changing set-pieces. This is something that suits the Coens’ often-frenetic style of comedic storytelling.
It is good that the Coens can write such interesting characters and know how to get them to the screen in the way they do, otherwise this film just wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. There’s nothing majorly wrong with this film; it’s certainly enjoyable and the audience can be amused by many comedic moments throughout. It’s just that the story seems to meander, and not really head in any direction.
Oftentimes the viewer will be left trying to piece together where, exactly, the story is going and how each of the set-pieces is connected but, after the credits roll, they will be left feeling that nothing has really happened in any significant way. But maybe that could be the Coens’ way of highlighting to the audience that Eddie Mannix’s job will never end because the stars of the studio will never change.
There are many amusing moments in this film; a scene where a Rabbi, an Orthodox Priest, a Protestant Vicar and a Catholic Priest are brought in to the studio by Mannix to discuss whether the portrayal of the figure of Christ in the film is tasteful, descends into a debate about the nature of God and the figure of Christ. But realistically the film is several amusing moments followed by periods of nothing much happening at all. Compared to other Coen films similar to this, such as Burn After Reading, the film lacks any real urgency or mystery as all of the information is given to us, more or less, immediately.
Every single one of the characters, no matter how minor, have some endearing quality to them. Whether it be Mannix’s faithful devotion to his family and job despite his ever present Catholic self-doubt, Hobie Doyle’s (Alden Ehrenreich) struggle with switching from his usual Western persona to that of a serious actor in period drama or Baird Whitlock’s (George Clooney) innocent indoctrination by Communists, each of them is wholly interesting to watch. However, given that the pace of the scenes is hurried along to the film’s conclusion, we, as an audience, are left wanting more from each of the characters and their respective stories.
Typical to a Coen film is the underlying threat that crops up every now and again, this time it taking the form of Communism, which is the most appropriate mysterious threat for the time period. The reveal of the Communists is an interesting portion of the story, with one in particular proving very interesting, and can be said to be the main focal point of the film. But given the frenetic nature of the events that occur in the film the viewer is left wanting a little more flesh to that section of the story than is given.
What this film does well is in the set design, the costuming, the music and the feel of the characters. It’s just a shame that the story itself doesn’t reach its potential. It’s interesting to point out that the other film that deals heavily with religion in the Coens’ filmography, A Serious Man, is also another film that could have been so much more than it was. Hail Caesar! suffers from an overuse of familiar plot points and reliance on the characters to carry the story along, when realistically both of those elements should be working in synchronisation.
It’s a solid film; any Coen film is worth watching and a bad Coen Brothers film is a lot better than a bad film by most other directors. The issue is that fans of the Coens’ previous works will be left wanting by this offering to the audience.