Hail, Caesar!

Movie Information

The Story: Studio head and "fixer" Eddie Mannix tries to hold things together — and keep them out of the papers — when a big star is kidnapped. The Lowdown: The Coen Brothers in a gleefully playful mood with a film that at once spoofs and honors the last days of the old Hollywood. It's funny, savvy and yet a little sad. At least for the moment we have a bright spot in the bleak winter season.
Score:
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Genre: Comedy
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehreneich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Rated: PG-13

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The Coen Brothers are back and does their presence ever help to lighten the load of the dregs of winter. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is being approached as one of their more lightweight affairs — presumably because it’s a comedy — but I’m not quite ready to go with that label, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be using it in a negative sense. No, I have a sense there’s more to the Coens’ Hollywood comedy than is apparent on the surface — something I think subsequent viewings will make evident. In a sense — because it also takes place at the mythical Capitol Pictures — it’s a more playful, less nightmarish continuation of their Barton Fink (1991). Hail, Caesar! is set a few years later and the Hollywood power structure has changed, and so have the movies. The political troubles of the House Un-American Activities Committee has darkened the scene, the world has become a more dangerous place with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the very existence of the movies appears to be threatened by the encroachment of television.

 

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At the center of all this is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) — a character based (loosely) on the MGM studio executive of that name. Not only is Mannix — a staunch Catholic prone to taking confession on a daily basis — the head of production at this ersatz MGM (mash-up at least three different studios), but he’s the studio “fixer” in charge of keeping the stars out of trouble, or at least out of the gossip columns and jail. Some of the potential scandals in the film are grounded in reality — the Scarlett Johansson storyline emerges from Loretta Young adopting the illegitimate daughter she had with Clark Gable  — and others grounded in rumors that won’t quite die. In this regard, Hail, Caesar! is something of an insider film, and that may hurt it at the box office. It’s definitely a movie where the more you know, the funnier it is. Still, you don’t have to know these things in order to follow it.

 

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The central plot involves the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a mysterious group (communist, it turns out) calling themselves “The Future.” (In point of fact, they’re mostly disgruntled red writers and not especially good radicals.) Whitlock’s disappearance comes at a time when he has one more scene — an important one — to shoot in the studio’s big religious epic Hail, Caesar! (subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” after Ben-Hur). Just as bad, though, is the fact that feuding twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) are not only on the scent of the disappearance, but are about to dredge up an old scandal involving Whitlock. Along the way we also deal with DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), the studio’s Esther Williams figure, musical star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, who turns out to be surprisingly adept at musicals), fussy (read: gay) director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes), who is saddled with turning singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (a very funny Alden Ehrenreich) into a real actor. And in the midst of it is Mannix trying to hold it all together while deciding whether or not to take a cushy job in the H-bomb business.

 

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Hail, Caear! is a both satire of and a love letter to old Hollywood in all its Technicolored overkill and silliness. It’s a kind of absurdist crash course in movie history, since many of the more ridiculous things we see — like a gathering of various religious scholars weighing in on whether the script of Hail, Caesar! will offend anyone — are really quite authentic. Yet there’s a certain end-of-an-era melancholy hovering over it all, since it’s impossible not to realize that this wacky, strange, fantastic little world of Hollywood — with all its artifice and silliness and petty concerns — will soon no longer exist like this, and that the world is perhaps a little poorer for that passing. This is what makes Hail, Caesar! a good bit more than it might at first seem. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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52 thoughts on “Hail, Caesar!

  1. Barry

    I guess I’m still limping along on what seems, because this movie didn’t seem to be much of anything to me, or to the other 50 people or so who watched it with me. I don’t think any of them ever laughed, and I know I didn’t. I can see what you mean about it being more meaningful to “insiders”, but I question if even being in that rarefied group would help much. I find myself wondering why the Coens thought that those musical numbers would entertain us, especially the interminable sailor bit and the moronic western number. I did find myself grinning through the scene where the cowboy actor entertains his date by making a lasso out of spaghetti; their mutual delight was very charming and infectious. But otherwise, I can see why this thing is tanking at the box office. There just aren’t enough insiders. Considering the crap lying in wait in the coming attractions (among others, a “comedy” with Melissa McCarthy about her commandeering a girl scout troop), maybe I should be grateful that at least it wasn’t abominable.

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, let us say that opinions vary…a lot. Though not about Melissa McCarthy.

      Also, it isn’t tanking at the box office. I do have one question — do you like old movies?

      • Barry

        Yes, I realized just from the previous discussions on Coen movies how profoundly people differ (I’m a “Fargo” lover, and I know you’re not). I think I could classify myself as being fond of old movies, depending, of course, on the movie. “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of my favorites, as is “Curse of the Demon” (I gave a VHS version of that to a millennial friend of mine, a true case of casting pearls before swine) and Hitchcock’s stuff, among many others. I feel as if I’m almost allergic to some modern filmmaking…especially that frenzied editing that makes my eyeballs spin in their sockets.

        • Ken Hanke

          Interesting about Curse (Night) of the Demon, since I’ve shown it to audiences of the millennial persuasion and they liked it. But audiences differ. I’ve shown the same films to different audiences and gotten wildly different responses.

          I have no objection to rapid editing — which has always been around — depending on how it’s used. For instance, I adore Moulin Rouge!, but have no patience for rapidly cut action films where the cutting mostly just attempts to obscure the fact that the director hasn’t a clue about staging action.

          • Barry

            I’m glad to hear that your millennials liked it. My millennial just seemed bewildered that I liked it so much. I suspect that this guy is mostly interested in contemporary characters around his own age. I also gave him Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” and have urged him to watch it, but after “Curse of the Demon” and “Chinatown”, he seems reluctant. But as you say, responses are so wildly different.

          • Barry

            I realize that this is probably getting way too off-topic, but “Curse of the Demon” reminds me of another British movie from a few years later that is quite similar: “Burn, Witch, Burn”, also known as “Night of the Eagle” in England. I saw it again recently and liked it a lot. I suspect you are well aware of it, yes?

          • Ken Hanke

            How very unpleasant for your young friend — and how limiting.

            Yes, I know Night of the Eagle — or in its confusing US title Burn, Witch, Burn (which is actually the name of a very different novel that was the basis of Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll). I like it, but not nearly so much as Night of the Demon. I think it has to do with something I tend to criticize others for doing — namely, that it departs too much from its source novel (Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife). My usual take is that the movie of anything is its own beast and really shouldn’t be compared to the book, but here I do, Maybe it’s because it’s far and away my favorite horror novel and I’d really like to see someone catch the essence of it. (Actually, the 1944 version Weird Woman may come closer, but not enough.)

          • Ken Hanke

            Yeah, I boggled at that, though I find Night of the Demon pretty boggling, too,

          • Barry

            And finally, he told me he fell asleep in Alien, the movie that terrified me more than any other.
            Maybe I am portraying him unfairly. It isn’t that he criticizes these movies outright; they just don’t seem to evoke much of a response from him. After he watched the DVD of Chinatown from the local library (to which I had donated it), he wanted to know why I praised it so highly; maybe he was looking for a more personal reason than mere superb filmmaking. He did say that he would probably watch Curse of the Demon again (probably to attempt to find out just what the big deal was). Although this had the American title, it was the complete version, with that great visit to Hobart’s joyless family intact. I love the character actors in that movie: Mr. Meek, Hobart. That whole scene with Hobart is just plain dynamite.
            In watching Night of the Eagle again, I was especially impressed with Peter Wyngarde’s performance, and wondered why he wasn’t in more movies.

          • Ken Hanke

            The commercial VHS retained the Curse of the Demon title and the box even claimed an 83 min. running time, but the print was the full 95 min. one. As someone remarked at the time, “The studios themselves don’t have a clue what they’ve got.”

            It’s all going to be hit and miss with…well, just about anyone. I was unimpressed with Alien myself, which I saw in a packed theater when it first came out. I’ve grown to kind of like it, though I keep thinking this is just a longer, better made It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

            If memory serves Wyngarde was a difficult actor. I remember Wm. K. Everson noting in one of his books that Wyngarde insisted on wearing indelicately tight trousers in Eagle and that this resulted in director Sidney Hayers shooting him to minimize his…uh…manliness. And it is worth noting that while he later appeared in two Avengers episodes, they were not ones directed by Hayers.

          • Barry

            Yes, what we find funny and what we find scary is extremely personal.
            As for Wyngarde, I don’t think Hayers was too successful at minimization. Clearly, he dressed to the left.

          • Ken Hanke

            If I may ask, how old were you when you saw Alien?

          • Barry

            I was 32. It was the only movie I’ve ever stood in line for an hour to see on its first showing, and it was a long line (many of us had read the Rolling Stone article that preceded it). With a lifelong interest in lower life forms, I continue to dearly love the creature, which in my view is both hideous and beautiful, the best movie monster of all time. And I was fascinated that it was endowed with a life cycle; I’d never seen that in a movie. The parallel with parasitic wasps is well known, but even the interior killing jaws are reminiscent of dragonfly larvae, who have a double-sickled appendage folded under the head that shoots out to grapple prey and bring it to the mouth. The movie could have been scarier, and I was so grateful that it wasn’t.

          • Ken Hanke

            Well, ’tain’t an age thing, since I was 25 when it came out, though I freely admit I was more cynical at 25 than I was at 32.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I like Alien more each time I watch it. The only one in the series I don’t like is Alien 3.

          • Barry

            Yeah, Alien3 gets very tiresome with all the yelling and cursing and incomprehensible running around, but I do admire it for its uncompromisingly bleak ending (Fincher is so good at that) that is nevertheless a kind of sad victory for Ripley.

          • Barry

            My millennial friend loved Aliens, which I sort of dislike because it is so panderingly crowd-pleasing, and also because it de-mystifies the creature. When you start calling the alien a bitch, it’s all over.

          • Ken Hanke

            It’s also really an action picture dressed up as sci-fi horror.

  2. Xanadon't

    I felt the Channing Tatum musical bit was the brightest of many highlights in a pretty great movie. And I may even finally watch On the Town— I’ve had a cheapo dvd copy of it sitting on my shelves for years.

  3. Lydia

    This looked incredibly fun from all the advertisements (and a clip on imdb.com of Channing Tatum’s song) I’d seen. Sounds like it is, but also has some more weight to it given the time period (for some reason, I had assumed it took place in the 30’s). Even better! Looking forward to it.

    • Ken Hanke

      That Busby Berkeley-styled number with Scarlett Johansson does have a ’30s look to it, though it replicates a much later Esther Williams number — where Berkeley repeated a lot of things he’s done in Footlight Parade in 1933.

    • Ken Hanke

      The Coens don’t really do anything straight up — and I like that about them.

  4. hauntedheadnc

    Perhaps I’m just not enough of an insider to have enjoyed this movie, but I can’t recall the last time a movie bored me, or the rest of the audience, quite so much. Four people walked out when it became apparent that they were waiting in vain for something interesting to happen. Two other people near me fell asleep.

    As for me, I paid for the damn thing, so I sat through it watching the action on screen shift by turns from boring to stupid to pointless and back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a waste of talent, or have ever sat through an actual full-length feature film that had no discernible plot.

    • Ken Hanke

      While it’s impossible to be wrong about whether or not you like something — and having no intention of trying to change your opinion — I would be curious to know how you’ve felt about other Coen Bros. pictures.

      • hauntedheadnc

        Of the Coen Brothers movies that I’ve seen…

        Fargo — It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I don’t really remember much of it.

        O Brother Where Art Thou? — Loved it, and think it should be the official state movie of Mississippi.

        The Ladykillers — Loved it, and was hoping that Hail, Caesar! would afford something akin to this experience.

        True Grit — Loved it and I’m in the mood to watch it again sometime soon.

        • Ken Hanke

          There is no denying that those — despite their quirks (and there are plenty) — are more traditionally plotted (one is a remake, another is closely adapted from a novel) than Hail, Caesar!. I’d be curious to see what you’d think of Barton Fink — which has connections to this latest — but I would hesitate to recommend it.

          • sally sefton

            I am curious as to why you wouldn’t recommend Barton FInk? It is in the top ten of my favorite movies. It was provocative, and yes , disturbing, but a brilliantly conceived film. It has been the centerpiece of many conversations over the years.

            Again…just curious.

          • Barry

            My curiosity piqued by your mention of Barton Fink, I returned to it and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Hail, Caesar, probably mostly because of the ominous creep factor, drenched as it is with Polanskian elements. And I prefer movies that don’t have a cast of thousands.

            On another tack, I’m on the brink of reading “Conjure Wife”, wondering if that business with the eagle is in the book. I’m still a bit puzzled about Flora’s fate in the movie. And that stuff about that tape driving everybody bonkers; I assume it was cursed somehow. Maybe the book will make it all clear. But I can live with ambiguity.

          • Ken Hanke

            Conjure Wife probably has more in common with its earlier adaptation Weird Woman (1944) than to Night of the Eagle. It is very much of its time and creates its own peculiar mythology. You’ll see.

          • T.rex

            Love Barton Fink. Still my favorite Coen Brothers film. Miller’s Crossing is close too and yes, Fargo.

    • Bob Voorhees

      Right “haunted”. This was the greatest Borefest” since the Carter administration. I enjoy watching “hip” people (think Colbert) playing to an audience with “inside” jokes. Gotta laugh, y’know, wannabe cool. Damn, this was dreary.

      • Ben

        Not just “hip people” but people in general enjoy just about anything more if they know something about the subject.

        • Bob Voorhees

          Ben. I think I know what was being satirized. The fact that someone attempts satire (eg Colbert Report) doesn’t mean that it is, ipso facto, successful. Knowing “something about the subject” didn’t affect my response to it. I just expected more wit, less heavy-handed drivel.

          • Ken Hanke

            Few things are more subjective than comedy. One man’s idea of funny is another’s “heavy-handed drivel.”

  5. Matt

    The disparity between critics score and audience score on rotten tomatoes is almost 40%. That makes sense after seeing the movie and seeing some different response. I saw the film with a group and most were mildly amused but kind of squirmy.

    My assessment is that it’s a finely made film with the usual excellent Coen Brothers dialogue, humor, craft, and chemistry laden cast. But Hail Caesar seems ideal for movie geeks and history buffs of a certain generation. The plot was so distinctly ungripping that I have to assume they just wanted it to be that way, maybe in order to focus on the fun they were having with the other aspects of the film: The homage to the era, the playful depiction of all the moving parts of a movie, flawed goofs portraying the most epic and important characters for americans in a time when nuclear weapons threatened the world. One scene they really nailed was Clooney’s various takes on his response to Christ. There’s something so sublimely funny and exposing within this scene. A lot can be read into moments like that.

    I personally really liked the movie and will watch it again to catch all the points of humor that I may have missed the first time, and enjoy the quirkiness of each character, but I won’t recommend this movie to too many folks.

    For the record, I like most of their material, with the exception of True Grit, which I just didn’t get.

    • Ken Hanke

      I don’t disagree with that, but I question the phrase “of a certain generation,” since Coens are about the same age I am and this is all stuff that took place before the oldest of us (that’s me — by about 2 months) was born or at least conscious of anything. Junkies of old Hollywood might be a better description. (My own interests in Hollywoodiana actually are from 20 years earlier.)

  6. Ken Hanke

    Rather interestingly for such a polarizing movie, this still did really strong business (coming in second) at The Carolina this weekend.

  7. T.rex

    Loved it. I laughed at every gag. While not the best if the Coen Brother cannon, it is a lot of fun. Best so far this year.

    • Ken Hanke

      And it comes to the end of a healthy run at The Carolina this week.

  8. Just watched this back to back with TRUMBO on my flight from Dubai to Sydney. Pretty great double bill.

    I think we may have found the part Josh Brolin was born to play here.

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