Whenever Joel and Ethan Coen release a new film, it’s an event. It’s been 32 years since the Coens burst onto the scene with Blood Simple., and over a career of sixteen features, their output has been marked by undeniably idiosyncratic performances from a cadre of the best character actors in the world as they careen from comedy to drama to everything in between. Their newest, Hail, Caesar!, has a lot to live up to as the follow-up to 2013’s masterful Inside Llewyn Davis, and quite shrewdly the Coens have chosen to move on from that soulfully sad rumination of a folk singer on the brink by providing what could be their zaniest film this side of The Ladykillers, a screwball romp through the backlots of Hollywood at the height of its power and influence.
Roughly, Hail, Caesar! tracks a day in the life of Capitol Pictures producer/fixer Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he single handedly tries to keep the massive studio from careening off the rails, whether that amounts to replacing the lead actor of a particularly particular director (Ralph Fiennes), covering up the single motherhood of one of his young starlets (Scarlett Johansson), keeping at bay a set of twin sister reporters (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) obsessed with digging up dirt to sell their rags, or, perhaps most significantly, solving the mysterious disappearance of the superstar lead actor (George Clooney) of their biggest picture of the year (the eponymous epic Hail, Caesar!). Navigating a job that has him at work before the sun rises and long after it sets has put a strain on his faith and his family, and when faced with an opportunity for an easy way out, he must decide between finding his missing star and leaving that life behind.
Simply looking at the poster or seeing the trailer of Hail, Caesar! is enough to make a cinephile drool. The cast is a balance of Coen veterans (Brolin, Clooney, Swinton, Frances McDormand) and the sort of actors who seem destined to find an easy home on their unique wavelength (Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Allison Pill), and this would be the Coens’ first screwball comedy since 2008’s uneven Burn After Reading, a long eight year wait. Brolin’s lead lies somewhere between Sam Spade and Walter Neff; his fixer is a hard boiled gumshoe, worn out and spread thin by the absurdities of it all, a true fish out of water. But somewhere deep down you can see his love for the business despite what it’s doing to him, an ember that refuses to die, stoked by conversations with his wife and his priest. It is a challenging job but a fulfilling one, and his desire to make things right He is so beautifully foiled by Alden Ehrenreich's homely cattle-rustler-cum-Paint Your Wagon style Western movie star, so delightfully out of his depth and so earnest in his desire to please everyone. Ehrenreich is certainly the least known of the principle cast, and he more than holds his own surrounded by so many giants of the industry. Said giants are as dependable as one might expect, though you are often left wanting for more in what amounts to a series of cameos.
The film marks the welcome return of cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, whose work has been so intertwined with the Coens since Barton Fink until scheduling conflicts forced him to miss Inside Llewyn Davis. His return is welcome (which is not to say Inside Llewyn Davis was subpar in that respect; it certainly was not), and Hail, Caesar! pulls no punches with its visuals. Its palette is demanding, featuring a wide range of influence as it apes Cecil B. DeMille epics in one scene, underwater ballet in another and, in perhaps the film’s most satisfying sequence, a pitch perfect Gene Kelly inspired tap sequence. Outside the studio walls, Deakins bathes the film in classic noir, as Mannix drives the streets of LA, streetlights casting amber waves of light onto Brolin’s leathery face through rain flecked windshields. Sunlight is a key visual cue of Hail, Caesar!, as arguably any Old Hollywood film set in Los Angeles would be, and Deakins makes the borderline washed out sepia feel pop off the screen. This is an effortlessly beautiful film, and once again confirms what everyone already knew about the talent of Roger Deakins.
In some ways, Hail, Caesar!'s wide-ranging scope is what sends it to the precipice of downfall. There are so many engaging and fascinatingly strange characters, often popping up for one scene and disappearing as soon as they arrive, that it is easy to become as bemused by it all as Mannix is. You can't help but wish for more. More screen time for its impactful minor characters (I would watch an entire film just about Tilda Swinton’s warring twin journalists), more connective tissue, perhaps a tad more plot to tie everything together with a bit stronger string. This is a whirlwind of a film, sweeping you up in its madcap screwball comedy tour of Hollywood in the early 50’s as the specter of the Reds and HUAC looms in the near distance. But it never stops entertaining. Previous Coen efforts that felt similarly devoid on the story side of things, whether Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, did not have the infectious energy present in Hail, Caesar!. It is a case of the Coens coming full circle, returning to the same setting as Barton Fink ten years into Hollywood’s future, trading in Fink’s profound cynicism for lighter fare. There is more to Hail, Caesar! than simply a loving look of the Hollywood of a bygone era, but that vitality allows it to glide over any of its bumps in the road. It is difficult not to leave the theater wishing you had gotten a tad more, but the reason we want more is rooted in the quality of what the Coens have given us.