by Alan Yudman
I imagine during breaks from filming, the cast and crew of HAIL, CAESAR! sat around and polished their Oscars or showed off the letters congratulating them on being nominated. The talent pool is so deep here how could the movie not succeed? Joel and Ethan Coen writing and directing. Roger Deakins behind the lens. George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes in front of it. Got to be a winner, right? For the most part, HAIL, CAESAR! is a winner. It’s of a time, and that time was 1950’s Hollywood. The dialogue and the pacing are throwbacks to that era. The movie was shot on film which gives it that warm old time feel. The costume design is perfect. And it mostly comes together in a pleasing way. Clooney is a big star who’s the “name” on a version of the Christ story titled “Hail, Caesar!”. He is kidnapped by a group calling itself “The Future”. I don’t want to spoil anything but they aren’t as mystical as the name might imply. But this isn’t exclusively about that kidnapping. HAIL, CAESAR! is really about one man, Brolin’s Eddie Mannix. He’s the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures and this movie is about how he keeps all the balls in the air. The kidnapping. Johansson’s character is an Esther Williams type star who is pregnant and unmarried. Can’t have that. Have to figure out what to do. There are twin sister gossip columnists (Swinton) who are badgering him for a story. There’s the threat of Commies. An owner who wants to take a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) and shoehorn him into a drama role as their new leading man. Eddie is being given the hard sell by Lockheed who wants him to run the company. And he’s promised his wife (Alison Pill) to give up smoking, which he’s sorta doing and lies to her about. So Eddie has a lot on his plate. And it is his struggle to decide what to do about that Lockheed job offer that is the emotional string that attempts to tie all this together. Does it work? Sometimes. Maybe the stakes just are not high enough. I never felt fully engaged in it all. It didn’t hit me in the gut or tear at my heart. But it’s all done so well and the writing is so typically Coen Brothers that it still was thoroughly enjoyable. The little movies within the movie are great. Johansson in a water ballet. Tatum in a song and dance number (his character is tied to the kidnap plot in a way I won’t reveal). Ehrenreich (who is wonderful) in a guns blazing horseback chase. They are all feel real, like I want to see the rest of those movies too. Oh, and there is one absolutely hilarious scene where Mannix tries to get the stamp of approval for “Hail, Caesar!” from members of the clergy. The debate between a priest, a rabbi, a Eastern Orthodox priest and a reverend is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. Robert Picardo as the rabbi steals that scene. Is this the best Coen Brothers movie? No. But it is so lovingly created and so well executed it’s hard to dislike it. Even mediocre Coen is better than most of the dreck out there.