The Cohen brothers… That is all that need be said. These guys have proven time and time again they know how to make a movie, be it behind the camera or pen. No Country for Old Men, True Grit, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Bridge of Spies… What more proof does one need? And now there is Hail, Caesar!, a comedic noir throwback to Old Hollywood. How does it measure up to their past work?
While managing the ins and outs of Capitol Pictures, Ed Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, becomes entrenched in an extortion plot after the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney. Things heat up as more figures in the business get involved while Mannix questions his station in life.
Caesar! is a day in the life of Old Hollywood from the perspective of a fixer, the guy who keeps actors in line, and makes sure everything goes according to plan. It has all the trappings one would expect: pestering paparazzi, complicated deals, a production in flux, and manufactured gossip. The movie uses the basis of the period to build upon elements of comedy and satire in its depiction of the business. It is unique in regards to the Cohens, but if I had to tie it back to their previous films, Caesar! is Lebowski and Raising Arizona.
The characters are outrageous caricatures. Baird is full of himself as much as he is an idiot. Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie is a John Wayne parallel and an even worse actor. Tilda Swinton’s Thora and Thessaly are nosey reporters looking to exploit any story they can get their hands on. The story itself borders on the absurd with Mannix constantly at odds with who he is, making regular trips to confession for every transgression. In a meeting with a rabbi, priest, reverend, and patriarch to discuss the content of a script, the four get into a theological argument on the meaning of Christ. Without giving anything away, the people behind Baird’s kidnapping personify Old Hollywood’s fears and the pretense of artists.
The scale of Caesar! feels very small. Most day in the life stories do not qualify for epic status, while others are good at appearing large. I got the impression of a grand scheme in the background, but with everything Mannix had to deal with, the subplots did not fit in a cohesive manner. All the situations sat under the umbrella of Old Hollywood, yet they did not come together. However, it is not totally disjointed because everything works in regards to what Mannix goes through. The events coincide with his job because that is what he has to contend with as a fixer.
There were a lot of big names in the cast in addition to Brolin, Clooney, and Swinton, while the others played minor characters for maybe two scenes. Ralph Fiennes was a director that had to contend with Hobie’s terrible acting, Scarlet Johansson was a cynical starlet impatient with the minutia of the business, and Jonah Hill was there for literally three minutes. Why hire such talented people and barely use them? I thought they would play a bigger role in trying to find Baird like the trailers implied. It seems justified, however, because each were a part of the film’s various situations.
Is Hail, Caesar! another great movie by the Cohens? Well, it is certainly good, but the way it is structured hurts the story until you see what it is trying to do. One thing I can say for sure is that is funny and weird in that Cohen brothers way. If you are interested in other stories about Old Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is a classic and Ed Brubaker’s The Fade Out is fantastic.