We live in an age where big Biblical epics and musicals don’t happen like they used to.
Of course, the era when they did happen like they used were hardly sweet and innocent times, but that’s where the Coen Brothers come in with their most recent movie Hail, Caesar!
Review and maybe some mild SPOILERS after the cut.
The Coens often space their movies out, with comedies coming between their more serious films, and they always have a distinctive viewpoint. That distinctive viewpoint usually means that there is no philosophy that will give anyone the answers they seek, and life will continue to muddle along at the status quo at best, or even someone ends up dead or in some sort of ambiguous danger. No one will really get ahead in a Coen Brothers comedy.
The story here is set at fictional movie studio Capital Pictures, where executive and fixer Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, is trying to keep everything running smoothly. He has numerous problems, keeping actors out of the tabloids, dodging rival twin sister gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton), and then things get worse when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), disappears in the middle of filming the title movie, a giant Biblical epic along the lines of Ben-Hur.
It turns out Whitlock was taken by a bunch of rightfully disgruntled screenwriters, who also happen to be communists. See above about philosophies that don’t give the answers anyone seeks. You can probably guess how their plot will work out for them.
The trailer was a bit misleading. It makes it look like Mannix recruited a few actors and directors to find Whitlock. Nothing of the sort happens. In fact, most of the actors mentioned in the trailer have nothing to do with that plot line. Heck, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand each have one scene. Most of those characters play out in different plots where Mannix goes about his usual routine of keeping actors’ images clean and getting the movies made.
Now, if the Coens have a weakness, its for cowboys. Movies like The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit all show the upright, simple morality of the cowboy figure to one degree or another. That role here is played by singing cowboy actor Hobey Doyle, played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. Hobey, for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, has been tapped to appear in a drawing room comedy, where his thick Western accent won’t let him recite the lines his prissy English director (Ralph Fiennes) wants him to recite. There’s actually a great punchline around their efforts to get a single line of simple dialogue down just right. As a character, Hobey may be the simple moral figure in the middle of things, and the only one capable of getting anything done to any satisfaction for anyone outside Mannix.
But mostly, I am not sure the movie adds up to much. Some of it seems to be excuses for the Coens to do a bit of the big epic, a couple elaborate musical numbers, and so forth. They get to experiment with different styles of movies before advancing the main plot. There’s some funny stuff here, including one joke near the end of the closing credits where they reference a chat Mannix had with some religious figures over the title movie and the Rabbi present said it was disrespectful to depict the godhead. Yes, sure enough, the credits actually say, “This motion picture did in any way depict the godhead.” That’s actually a true statement for what it’s worth.
But is there a philosophy here? Despite both the religious and communist ideologies on display, the one constant seems to be that the movies go on and the studio, for all its chaotic mess of a system, gets things done. I’m giving this one seven out of ten closeted homosexuals. You’ll get that if you see it.