/ Analyses

HAIL, CAESAR!: Dark comedy at its finest

With stylistic visuals, charming cast, and a great score, Hail Caesar! is another unique work from Coen Brothers, delivering profound and thought-provoking nuances under the surface.

With a shared career spanning over more than three decades in Hollywood, the Coen Brothers have always been well-known for their subtly rebellious style in filmmaking from cult classics like Blood Simple, Fargo, or The Big Lebowski to the Award-winning No Country for Old Men. While most of their directorial works are deemed to be surreal parodies of serious issues, they’re undoubtedly both amusing and mind-boggling to examine. On that note, Hail, Caesar! could very well be one of the most memorable experiences in comedy that its audience has ever come across, with an entertaining surface accompanied by ambiguous layers of meaning underneath.

Set in the 50s – Hollywood’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar! follows the daily exploits of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is introduced as the Head of Physical Production of the renown Capitol Picture. It sounds glorified enough, but in fact, Mannix is a real “fixer” for everything around here as he compliantly takes care of troubles related to production, which is quite an extensive term on its own. The mess Mannix has to baby-sit includes the process of various production supervision, direct reports about studios to his senior, and the handling of staff problems ranged from the biggest kind of paperwork to the most personal errands, as well as a vast number of PR tasks.

Josh Brolin and Scarlet Johansson

Due to pressures in between hammer and anvil, Mannix works through sleepless nights and travels back-and-forth from place to place all day. He is a chainsmoker – not one of the DJ duo though – and has recently been contemplating on how to quit smoking to please his wife. Nonetheless, getting rid of the old habit is still a work-in-progress, and he arrives at the church on a daily basis to confess his sin of lying to her. Adding on top of the situation, as the world is shifting its attention to atomic bombs, Mannix is approached by a Lockheed agent and offered an occupation in managing with better working hours and salary, and mostly because he would not have to deal with that clutter of frivolous burdens in a fly-by-night industry anymore.

If audiences expect a conventional film with an accessible storyline, it is sad to say* Hail, Caesar!* doesn’t revolve around anything near a coherent plot. It just leads us through Mannix’s days at the office. Due to its nature as a series of studio assignments and duties interwoven with peculiar, petty gimmicks caused by his so-called household stars, the film flows in a somewhat bumpy structure. To some extent, this shouldn’t pose as a drawback because the story finds another way to fascinate viewers. If Hail, Caesar! were to have a central plot, it would be the kidnapping of A-list thespian Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Mannix’s main star in the titular project about a new interpretation of Jesus Christ through a Roman general’s eyes.

George Clooney as Baird Whitlock

Coen Brothers are always avid to deliver ballsy, idiosyncratic ideas, and Hail, Caesar! is no exception. Bizarre in its narrative, it is however endowed with stunning visual styles. In the Golden Age period settings, the cast and crew earned an opportunity to tribute and pay homage to classical filmmaking artistry. The audience is taken away on an adventure, from historical epic tentpoles to dusty old Western flicks, from aquatic spectacles to painstakingly choreographed dance musicals. The 50s nostalgia pays off as the extravaganze are absolutely voyeuristic while the film introduces to us the supporting cast revolving around Mannix’s tour of duty: actors, actresses, and directors tangled in their own uncanny drama.

Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes in one of the funniest scenes

A charming but meek, nit-witted Baird Whitlock with average acting ability; a novice, skillful cowboy/stuntman type Hobart Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who cannot act in a proper drama or even deliver one single line at all; the one-and-only debaucherous DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) with an innocent public image maintained by Mannix himself; Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), the typical masculine dancer but later revealed to be more important in the Whitlock case; all four of them do not get much screen time but are captivating and well-drawn enough to leave an impression and most crucially, to serve as the tool to  black humor. Regardless, Hobart Doyle stands out as the most engaging character. While being a little simple-minded (due to his work time spent mostly on backs of horses) and even all null and void at first, the young star still manages to win back our love along the course by his sophisticated reasonings and impressive rope tricks. All in all, these individuals, meticulously designed by the Coens, remind us of real figures in history with tidbits hinted here and there, like in-jokes among sailors and other innuendos in Gurney’s dance song.

Channing Tatum and Clifton Samuels as musical actors

The film’s value also lies in the satirical depiction of a harsh period in Hollywood. Five to ten years after the end of the Second World War, American townspeople lead a lifestyle with much higher standards; after starting a family, they moved out to the suburbs. Cities in urban areas began to lose their residents, leading to a stagnant market in the already faltering cinema industry. Every family would own a television set sooner or later, which means TV shows were posing a threat to films. Furthermore, a series of incentives regarding expenditures, taxes, box office revenues, and theater chains impaired the already depressing situation. Possibly worse than all the above, films were put under scrutiny by the US government, the public, and religious organizations. These bullet points are all illustrated throughout the film when Mannix is constantly asked to leave his exhausting job or during his discussion with leaders of four religious groups about the depiction of Jesus.

The depiction of religious pressure in The Golden Age

Under the layers of artistry and old times soundtrack, the film isn’t afraid to include black humor as its overtone. As the Cold War and Red Scare crept up on American people, these sensitive political subjects are brilliantly insinuated through the portrayal of Whitlock’s kidnappers – The Future, an “activist” group formed by mostly ill-treated Hollywood screenwriters. They are so passionate on political debates and show despise towards capitalism, addressing that the studios are its devices and that they are capable of predicting future events with their ideology alone, yet the film also attacks their hypocrisy and pretentious formalism. Media satires, targeted at news hounds, also appear several times through Mannix interactions with the Thacker twins (Tilda Swinton) and likewise with behind-the-scene scandals about shady relations between directors and actors.

In conclusion, Hail Caesar! is another unique work from Coen Brothers, delivering profound and thought-provoking nuances under the surface. That being said, if you feel this somehow gets in the way of the story, just be content with its combination of stylistic visuals, charming cast, and great scores.