“Hail, Caesar” is something of a critic’s dream: a movie about movies from an era of great movies. It’s directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, makers of some of the greatest movies of this era. It’s one of their comedies, which unfortunately means that the plot is a convoluted mess, but individual scenes are loaded with interesting characters and endearing quirkiness.
Josh Brolin stars as 1950s movie studio executive Eddie Mannix. It’s unclear what his job is exactly, but he does a lot of damage control for movie stars. He has his hands full. Sweetheart DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant out of wedlock, cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) isn’t fitting in on the set of his eloquent new film, and integral leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gone missing. He’s also being hounded by an irate director (Ralph Fiennes), a gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton), a gossip columnist who thinks she’s a serious reporter (also Swinton) and the Lockheed Corporation, who want to lure him away from the movie business. On top of all that, he’s trying to quit smoking.
The film is a love letter to the 50’s, and in particular the films of that era. We see snippets of a western, a cowboy musical, a water musical, a dance musical, a sophisticated society piece and of course the Cecil B. DeMille-like Biblical epic of the film’s title. I’ll also throw “detective movie” in there because that’s basically how Mannix conducts himself. Other artifacts of the era make it in as well, such as a truckload of cigarettes and the people who kidnapped Whitlock using the phrase “means of production” an awful lot.
There’s a lot to like in this movie. The films within the film are all delightfully corny, especially the dancing sailor musical with tap-dancer extraordinaire Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). I wish Tatum’s involvement in this project had been kept a secret, but I can certainly see why they would want him on the poster. Funny and memorable scenes include a summit of religious officials to discuss the suitability of the Biblical movie and Whitlock excitedly sharing his version of wisdom with a scholarly type. But my favorite scene has to be the one where Hobie, every bit the cowboy even when the cameras aren’t rolling, does his darndest to carry a film that is far outside where his talent lies. Ehrenreich is probably the least known of the film’s billed cast, but he’s the one people are going to remember most.
The Coen Brothers tend to have trouble ending their films, and sadly this one is no exception. Storylines and characters that needed development are either left hanging or end anticlimactically, and it feels like we’ve been robbed of a scene involving Fiennes’ director. One abrupt conclusion that works is the one to the Johansson storyline, which seems appropriately impulsive. Still, I wouldn’t have minded another half hour with these characters, partly to get necessary closure and partly because they’re just so fun to be around.
Like most Coen Brothers comedies, “Hail, Caesar” is plenty enjoyable if you can look past the nonsensical plot and ending. In 2015, it took me until October to review a movie (“Bridge of Spies,” which was in fact written by the Coen Brothers) that I felt was worthy of Three Stars. In 2016, I had only to wait until February, and early February at that. If 2016 keeps this up, it’s going to be quite a year for movies.
Three Stars out of Five.
“Hail, Caesar” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. Its running time is 106 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.