Movie Review: ‘HAIL, CAESAR!’ – Hijinks & Hilarity In Hollywood’s Heyday


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

HAIL, CAESAR! |  106 min  | PG-13
Directed by: Ethan CoenJoel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett JohanssonChanning TatumTilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Veronica Osorio, Jonah Hill

There’s something about Hollywood that makes it ripe for the skewering. Maybe it’s because this town takes itself way too seriously. We’ve seen it satirized brilliantly in films like L.A. STORY, THE PLAYER and BOWFINGER, but never have we seen it done quite like directors Joel and Ethan Coen do it in HAIL, CAESAR! Existing as both a love-letter to and send-up of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the kooky comedic caper is loads of fun, but it’s also a mess. It’s as if the Coen Brothers watched TCM for seventy-two hours straight, drank a half bottle of Nyquil and then wrote this. Delightfully bonkers, it’s exuberant, entertaining and enjoyable still in its imperfection.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has a lot of problems. As the Head of Physical Production at the fictitious Capitol Pictures, he’s a fixer tasked with keeping the studio’s greatest assets – the actors – and their scandals out of the paypahs. Long hours on the job have led him to feel Catholic guilt about a backslide into nicotine addiction and being away from his family. It’s no wonder he’s thinking about leaving it for a cushy gig at Lockheed. But as he’s mulling over the tempting job offer, he still has to put out fires left and right at his current workplace, fielding potential crises from pregnant bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), principled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and rising star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, who practically steals this movie from Brolin and oozes more charm than Clooney). That’s when the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a mysterious organization.

George Clooney in HAIL, CAESAR! Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

George Clooney in HAIL, CAESAR! Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Narratively, this is a mixed bag. The story takes its sweet time to get going and when it finally does, the escalating momentum quickly peters out. It assumes audiences want to bathe in that time period – and we do to a certain degree. From matinee idol Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) Gene Kelly-esque NO DAMES!, to the Gene Autry-esque LAZY OL’ MOON, to the Biblical prestige picture from which the Coen’s film gets its name, to the Esther Williams-like water ballet (that strangely wasn’t given a name), the fake movies within the movie are a classic film lover’s delight and easily bring the most energetic bliss. There’s just not a strong thread pulling it all together with the kidnapping. I guess it’s supposed to be that Mannix’s journey is a candy-coated odyssey to learn that most conflicts in life work themselves out without expending much control on his part. However, it can’t shake the feeling that it’s quirk for quirk’s sake. Characters you want to see more of – like the Thacker twin columnists (played by Tilda Swinton) and Carmen Miranda-inspired actress Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio, who’s a total revelation) – aren’t given enough screen time, and it dwells on the characters you’d rather see less of (the Communist screenwriting squad and Laurentz).

Aesthetically and sonically, it earns high marks. Cinematographer Roger Deakins infuses the frame with saturated colors and warm light. Mary Zophres’ costumes are detailed and on point. Jess Gonchor’s production design is tremendous. You’ll really want to hang out in those gorgeous sets for longer. Carter Burwell’s score is pleasing and echoes the time period perfectly. “No Dames!” (music and lyrics by Henry Kriegler and Willie Reale respectively) is an absolute hoot with all its stealthy double entendres.

While this is far from being the Coen’s best madcap comedy (that honor goes to THE BIG LEBOWSKI), it’s also far from their worst (that would be THE LADYKILLERS). HAIL, CAESAR! may not make you want to stand up and pledge faith, but it certainly won’t have you pulling out the daggers.

HAIL,CAESAR! opens on February 5.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.