Every time a new Coen Brother movie arrives, it qualifies as an event for cinephiles. That’s true even of their minor efforts like Hail, Caesar! It’s hardly the genius sibling filmmakers greatest work, even in recent years. However, it’s clearly the product of two directing titans having fun at Hollywood’s expense. It’s not just a snide mockery of Hollywood insanity, but an opportunity to stage and gently parody a variety of old Hollywood forms and genres, while also bringing all of their most famous friends along for the ride. It feels like a lark, but with the Coens being the Coens that lark is layered with hints at profound hidden meanings that may or may not be there. After all, there are few filmmakers out there who seem to enjoy forcing critics into deep analysis of movies to find meanings that aren’t there as much as the Coens. Sometimes it feels like they do it just to read the thinkpieces and giggle themselves silly before writing their next movie that actually has a deeper meaning (or not).
The film is about a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). There was a real Eddie Mannix who kept movie stars out of gossip rags for MGM, but this isn’t him. This Mannix works for Capital Pictures, the same studio who employed Barton Fink the last time the Coen’s goofed on La-la-land. Mannix begins his day in confession agonizing over a few cigarettes before diving into the day’s troubles at the studio. It’s starts innocently enough, checking in with a few religious representatives from various churches on whether or not the studio’s new biblical epic is treating the lord A-OK. Then things get rough once that movie’s idiotic star (George Clooney, naturally) is kidnapped by a gang of communist screenwriters demanding ransom. On top of that, Mannix has a musical starlet (Scarlett Johansson) with a baby in her belly and no proper husband, the prim British director (Ralph Fiennes) of a socialiette comedy starts feuding with his assigned Western star (Alden Ehrenreich, not a star when the movie was released but soon to be one now that he’s Han Solo), twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) start asking awkward questions, and a dapper young song n’ dance man (Channing Tatum) appears to have some secrets. That’s a whole bunch of plates for Mannix to spin, get ready for some wacky diversions!
So, it’s a big old goofy tapestry set on the studio backlot. Like oh-so many Coen Brothers’ joints, there’s an element of detective yarn (mostly as an excuse to provide propelling mystery to drive the narrative and get away without wrapping up every thread as a stylistic choice) and an element of screwball comedy. The performances are arch, but clearly in a way that makes the actors giggle off camera. The visuals are frequently astounding, with Roger Deakins riffing on a variety of old timey studio styles as well as his own vaguely cartoonish design of the Coen-verse. It’s goofy and confusing and dramatic and funny and silly and not entirely satisfying, but at least interesting. More than anything else, Hail, Caesar! feels like a love letter to the very act of making movies and all of the insane characters and bizarre diversions it takes to make that happen. The fact that the Coens and their entire cast and crew visibly had so much fun making their film about filmmaking was probably the point of the whole endeavour. The audience was just invited along to the party this time. Maybe the Coens will let us in next time and maybe not. It’s hard to tell with those guys.
Predictably, Hail, Caesar! looks absolutely beautiful in HD. Deakins stylized sense hyper reality bathed in gold looks gorgeous, while the slightly wide-angle lenses that the Coens favour ensure extra depth to pop on Blu. Yet the real visual pleasures may well be the movies-within-the-movie, each given their own distinct and pitch perfect aesthetic (often including altered aspect ratios) to match film styles of the past that vividly stand out from the rest of the picture. Toss in a nice, crisp soundmix with a bombastic Carter Burwell score to fill out all home theater speakers and you’ve got a beautiful disc to add to any Coen collection.
As is the Coen Brothers way, there aren’t many special features. There are four featurettes included, each hinged on a theme.
The first is a four minute piece about the general concept, discussing how Hail, Caesar! came to exist as a prank on George Clooney’s part (the Coens mentioned the title to him once in passing and then he claimed it was his next project in interviews for until they wrote the script to shut him up), as well as all the actors discussing how excited they were to work with the directors and how great they are.
The next feature clocks in at a whopping eleven minutes (generous!) with all the stars discussing the weird little inside baseball aspect of the movie and essentially describing all of their roles and the former stars they were based on.
After that comes a nice 6 minute feature from the design team (along with a few cast members) discussing the joy and challenges of recreating a bygone Hollywood era by digging through all of the archives around LA and creating a new things as well (so you know, people can stand on the props and stuff).
Finally, there’s a 6 minute featurette about the old timey move magic used in Hail, Caesar! and how much everyone enjoyed recreating the giant music numbers and epic grandeur worth squinting at.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Hail, Caesar! seems to mostly be appreciated by the unabashed Coen brother enthusiasts, the goofy and at times confusing romp certainly in not for everyone but there’s no denying this disc is at least a feast for the eyes. The four featurettes amount to a decent 30-minute making-of doc with no contribution from the Coens whatsoever, which unfortunately is par for most Coen bros. releases these days, but we’ll take it.