‘Hail, Caesar’ is both a love letter and scathing criticism

By Sean Ray | a&e editor

Courtesy of Universal Pictures “Hail, Caesar” was initially planned to be about a stage play in the 1920s, rather than a movie in the studio system days of Hollywood.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
“Hail, Caesar” was initially planned to be about a stage play in the 1920s, rather than a movie in the studio system days of Hollywood.

The latest movie by the legendary film making duo Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar” is simultaneously a criticism and a love letter to the old studio system of Hollywood. Filled with eccentric characters and a plot which seems to move on its own, “Hail, Caesar” will delight those familiar with the Coens’ work but may leave regular audience members feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Taking place in 1950, the movie follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production at Capitol Pictures. Mannix is a “fixer,” a man who keeps the scandalous aspects of actors’ careers from leaking out into the public, such as naked pictures, babies born out of wedlock and drunken car crashes. However, he faces his biggest challenge yet when famed actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a communist cell before he can finish the final scene of Capitol’s latest big-budget extravaganza, Hail, Caesar.

In comparison to the Coens’ other works, “Hail, Caesar” feels very much like a lighter version of “Fargo.” Both films mix noir elements with comedy and deal with kidnapping someone for ransom money, but “Hail, Caesar” leans more on the humorous side, with none of the sudden violent deaths of “Fargo.”

The 1950s setting is well utilized, with the set and costume department really nailing the feel of that bygone age of Hollywood. The film is full of references to movies of the past, making “Hail, Caesar” a must-see for film historians.

The colorful cast of characters also deserve special mention. There is not a boring role in this movie, whether it is competing twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), Western actor turned drama star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) or Mr. Mannix’s secretary Natalie (Heather Goldenhersh). Eddie Mannix himself is a very sympathetic figure, and despite his sometimes abusive way of treating actors, the audience can tell he very much loves his job.

Where the film falters is in its plot, and where I suspect much of the divide between critics and mainstream audiences will appear. “Hail, Caesar” is a movie where much of the plot happens without the involvement of the characters. Happenstance and deus ex machina are all at play here, and the story seems to meander around in order to have more fun character moments. To those accustomed to the Coens’ other works, this is all standard fair. But for newcomers to the brothers’ unique film making style, it can feel very jarring and unsatisfying.

Furthermore, while the ending overall feels good, some characters did not seem to get a proper send-off, disappearing once their role in the plot was over and not resolving their stories in any way. While this is only a minor few characters, it still felt jarring considering the amount of time the audience spent with them.

For anyone who has a love for classic films, “Hail, Caesar” is one of the best movies to showcase the studio system of Hollywood in action, from its treatment of actors to its trading of contracts. Indeed, the film itself feels like it was made using older techniques, with some moments reminiscent of “Sunset Boulevard.” And while that might not enthrall or excite the average moviegoer, it’s clear that “Hail, Caesar” was made for film hobbyists and cinemphiles more than anything, and so it receives a warm, heartfelt recommendation from The Duke.

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