Regardless of how it’s being advertised, the new comedy from Ethan and Joel Coen, Hail, Caesar!, is not a zany, madcap farce. If it is, it’s a very mature one, taking all the elements of a screwball comedy and restraining them to the point that the relatively short 100-minute running time feels at least twice as long.
Neither does the movie revolve completely around the disappearance of actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) on the eve of completing the historical epic, “Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ.” He’s merely a supporting character, one of several Hollywood celebrities that Head of Physical Production for Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must wrangle over the course of 27 hours.
It’s really Mannix’s story, as periodic narration by Michael Gambon proves. He’s cool as a cucumber, managing spoiled actresses, filling casting vacancies and juggling gossip columnists, all while considering a life altering career change. The character could so easily have been broader, with Mannix a manic, flustered mess. Instead, his biggest worry is that he lied to his wife about quitting smoking.
Hail, Caesar succeeds best as a snapshot in time, albeit of a non-specific era. The movies in production (singing cowboy Westerns, dancing sailor Musicals, and Broadway play-based Dramas) are clearly meant to represent the 1940s. However, the Roman numerals at the bottom of a title card read “1951.” It plays more as a cumulative recollection of a range of years when the Hollywood studio system was at its peak.
This allows it to introduce several heavy issues that were sweeping the country during those years, and that you’d never expect to be in this movie. It begins with a debate over the nature of God among four diverse religious leaders. (Mannix wants to make sure his movie won’t offend people of any faith.) It also includes development of the H-bomb as a sign that the country is moving forward technologically. (The Lockheed representative couldn’t be prouder to be part of it.)
Most prominent, though, is the threat of communism. In a way, it’s the true villain of the movie, introducing itself slowly, then becoming insidious to the story. By the time a Russian submarine rises from the ocean off the California coast, Hail, Caesar! reminds you of Steven Spielberg’s 1941; that is, the distant cousin of 1941 with a more refined sense of humor.
While I’m not sure I cared for the entire movie, I adored the movies within the movie, all of which are named in the credits and have their own casts. My favorite is the mermaid water ballet starring DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). Johansson is brilliant in a glorified cameo; watch her subtle facial reactions in close-ups that we probably never saw from Esther Williams.
The heart of the movie lies within Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the aforementioned singing cowboy who’s being shoehorned into a leading role in the Broadway play-based Drama, one where he actually has to talk when other characters listen. The best scene in the movie is when director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) coaches him to speak elegantly, a losing battle considering his Southern twang.
Doyle’s character is more than a cameo and is the one that weaves in and out of all the subplots. It’s a star making turn for Ehrenreich, a talented young actor of whom I hope to see more. However, each and every actor who appears in Hail, Caesar! is a delight. Sometimes unrecognizable (Frances McDormand) and often in only one scene (Jonah Hill), the cast is the movie’s primary strength.
Thinking about Hail, Caesar! in retrospect, it should overall have been a more fulfilling experience. Instead of yawning as often as I did, I should have been laughing. More often than not, though, there were at least smiles behind my yawns. This will definitely not be everyone’s type of movie, but not all Coen Brothers movies are. For me, it’s a slight addition to their body of work.