CAPSULE: The Coen brothers write and direct (so what else is new?) their tribute to 1950s (or so) filmmaking at a major studio. The script juggles multiple plotlines. That is not unusual for the Coens. What is unusual is they do not seem to be invested in any of the plotlines. And I have to say, neither was I. What connects the stories is that they all involve a troubleshooter for the studio who can fix nearly any problem that comes up. But several humdrum stories do not make for a compelling overall plot. On the other hand they have plenty of room for lavish production numbers and for comic interludes. The lavish is very lavish and some of the comic is fairly comic. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The Coen Brothers--Joel and Ethan--love movies, and HAIL, CAESAR! is their paean to filmmaking in The 1950s. This is a film set in and around Capitol Pictures Studio at that time. That makes this a semi-sequel to BARTON FINK which also was set around Capitol. This gives them a chance to do pastiches on several genres of films, notably multiple types of musicals. We have a bathing beauty number, a sailors-on-leave dance number, and a singing cowboy. They also get to do a short copy of a high society film, a Western, and, most notably, a Biblical epic with allusions to BEN-HUR. We see this all from the point of view of studio troubleshooter Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin). When things are going wrong, Eddie finds a way to rescue the situation. Rescue is his business.
It is the Biblical film, HAIL, CAESAR! A TALE OF THE CHRIST that causes one of the most notable problems for Eddie. Its Roman general (played by Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney)) is central to the Roman epic. But shooting has to be halted when Baird Whitlock disappears. Eddie Mannix is responsible to get him back and ready for the cameras. Eddie's jobs could be the basis for several compelling stories happening in parallel. We have the stories, but they all come to rather bland conclusions. When a pregnant bathing beauty starts showing Eddie has to deal with sister dueling gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton). (In real life it was advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers who were really feuding sisters.) All the plots take place in a single day punctuated at each end by Eddie's visit to confess to his priest even though he has done nothing worse than smoked two or three cigarettes.
The film has some iconic bits of humor. In one of the better ones Eddie calls together a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi for them to see the script of HAIL, CAESAR! A TALE OF THE CHRIST to make sure all agree that the script is non-offensive. But these representatives of different beliefs do not agree on anything. It is a moment that might have come from a Woody Allen film, but Allen would have had a more serious discussion.
The script has several plotlines winding their way to happy but uninteresting resolution by the end of the film. Much of the humor in the film is rumored to be in-jokes, but being as I am an out- person some may have gone over my head.
The Coens give us a film whose whole is just not up to the sum of its parts. I rate HAIL, CAESAR! a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. This film makes an interesting pairing with the recent film TRUMBO.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0475290/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hail_CAESAR!_2016/
The film impacts on two different eras of history. It is mostly about Hollywood in the 1950s. But HAIL, CAESAR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST also has details about the Roman Empire at the time of the emperor Tiberius. It should be noted that errors in the Roman Empire film being made may be intentional on the part of the Coen Brothers to show how sloppy the film-making *in* the film was.
My wife, Evelyn C. Leeper, has a very good eye for historical detail and assembled this list of historical anachronisms she noticed.
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2016 Mark R. Leeper