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Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers Movie about Coen Brothers Movies!


A man finds finds himself on an odyssey determined to solve and conquer the cosmic riddle of the universe. He’s left in an self created abyss.


*audience walks out of the theater asking “what does it mean?”



A well meaning everyman walks into a web of convoluted crimes like a tumbleweed and walks out with no questions but a feeling of content and slight understanding.


*audience walks out of the theater asking “what does it mean?”


Those are the two characters and stories that populate Joel and Ethan Coen’s catalogue of violent cosmic quandaries. Throughout their films you’ll find misunderstandings, evil personified, idiots, more idiots, kidnappings, bursts of violence, and of course money being stolen/lost. No living filmmaker has the versatility to explore their obsessions more than the Coen’s. They’ve done musicals, noirs, comedies, westerns, melodramas and gangster films. And no filmmaker today understands and makes films about the human experience and the biggest cosmic questions more uniquely than the Coen brothers.

Look at The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film with UFO’s hovering over it’s plot of barber blackmail. Perhaps it’s their Jewish upbringing that had them pondering the cold nature of the universe, which was so potently and personally constructed in A Serious Man (the gif above accurately depicts the confusion of that film). It’s hard to tell what they believe in, if anything, but they’re certainly obsessed with religious stories. Anton Chigurh wanders No Country For Old Men‘s wasteland like the grim reaper, an angel of death. They also pull from greek mythology. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a musical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Their recent masterwork Inside Llewyn Davis binds together Homer’s Odyssey with the perils of being an artist like in Barton Fink, a tale of a Hollywood screenwriter at Capitol pictures, which is the studio in Hail, Caesar! as well. We also mustn’t forget they’re the best comedy filmmakers. The Big Lebowski is, in my opinion, the funniest movie ever made (in my top 10 all time). Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading etc. are gut busting comedies. So why does all this matter?

Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brother’s reconciliation with their own work, the era it comes from, and what the point of it all is. I don’t use that last phrase lightly because in the Coen brothers world, that’s the driving sentence. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?

All those genres that the Coen’s have done?! They’re all in this film to varying degrees. In glitzy 1950’s Hollywood we meet Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer who keeps the studio’s stars in line and fixes any problems they might have. The first time we see him is in a confession holding a cross, and he’s beginning to wonder what point, if any, there is in his job. “What merit do movies have in this world?” asks Eddie and the Coen’s. Mannix marches through the studio backlots fixing the leaks of the Hollywood machine. He’s a Christ figure like the one depicted in the film inside this film, also called Hail, Caesar!

And then it all gets quite Coeny when movie star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped by a group called “the future” and is held for ransom. Throw in some Marxism, macguffins, dialectics, silly gags, existentialism, and a meandering plot. We’ve got ourselves a Coen bros. picture! Mannix plays hard boiled noir detective throughout sunny Hollywood’s backlots and each scene is a step into another genre. Literally! It’s a film fan’s dream!

Scarlett Johansson is DeeAnna Moran, an unmarried pregnant actress who stars in Aqua-musicals like the great Esther Williams. It’s not hard to see the allusion to the Virgin Mary. Then we’ve got Channing Tatum doing a song and dance number a la Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. Tilda Swinton is a hoot as twin gossip reporters, but it’s newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as western star Hobie Doyle that steals the show. A back and forth with Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz and Hobie is an all time Coen exchange.

The Coen’s juggle lots of tones and styles in this movie circus and the effectiveness varies but is always done with spirit. Ehrenreich gives the best performance by balancing the winking deadpan comedy with an innocent wit and charm. Hobie Doyle is the one character that had the words on the page and right mix of performance to steal the spotlight and nail what they’re going for. Everyone else is obvs good, especially Fiennes, but most are merely funny caricatures albeit exquisite caricatures.

Ehrenreich’s Hobie is just a tier above and I wish the entire movie had been like what he tapped into. I suspect it’s because he’s the moral center and the cowboy character. And the Coen’s LOVE their Cowboy characters. Mannix is a solid lead, but Hobie Doyle as second in command is the film’s greatest asset. The caricatures, while fun and quotable, are what hold the film back from being an elite Coen movie.

My only other gripe is that it’s merely “pretty funny.” Instead of the gut-busting laughs of Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski, it’s a film of constant chuckles. Perhaps rewatches will let the comedy blossom and the caricatures will feel less obvious. What this has going for it that some of their other work doesn’t is that it’s sneakily profound both spiritually and emotionally; overwhelmingly so. Even more impressive is the tune the Coen’s play them at. Eddie Mannix’s central conflict of asking “what merit does my job in movies have?” let’s the Coen’s make a personal statement about moviemaking.

Opening with Jesus on the cross, 5 or 6 mentions of believing or disbelieving, and a discussion with religious leaders about film is the Coen’s turning their usual subtext of religion into actual text. But here even that text has subtext and meta text. It’s an essay on themselves. Tonally like one of their silly comedies but it’s also one of their densest pictures. Perhaps better described as an evenly mixed version of their two extreme styles.

So as I said, it’s hard to tell what the Coen’s believe in, if anything. Their characters often end where they began. Violence solves nothing in their films for both good and evil. To believe in a set of rules or code for selfish reasons in a universe that has it’s own rule set is a big cosmic joke to the Coen’s. Hail, Caesar!, while broader than their potent “serious” work and less funny than their best comedies, might be the hardest the Coen’s have ever Coened. Imagine all of their films meeting each other in a 1950’s studio backlot then drinking and awakening with a hangover while the Coen’s filmed it all.

Working both as a spirited ode to the classic cinema of the 50’s (screwballs, noir, musicals), and as a greatest hits of the Coen brothers, here’s their first film in my estimation that begins to answer the question of “what does it all mean?” though still in a very Coenesque way. Hail, Caesar! presents the movie theater as church, filmmaking as divine creation, and movies as a religion. Whether or not it’s “real” doesn’t matter. If one believes in the illusion it allows them to “accept the mystery.”

Grade: B+


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