Reviewing a new Coen Brothers film is an exercise in futility, especially only after one viewing. Their work is never as simple as it first seems on the surface and, regardless the genre they're dabbling in, there are always multiple layers to unpack. "Hail, Caesar!" is the latest in their almost unbroken string of classics and the film's deceptively shallow premise only obfuscates what the Brothers Coen are really interested in exploring. The film is set during the golden age of Hollywood (1950s!!) and follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures, a fictional studio pumping out some of the biggest movies of its day. Mannix keeps an eye on all the different films being produced and makes sure all the wheels keep turning smoothly. Whether it's yanking a young starlet out of a risque photo shoot, paying off kidnappers or keeping the press at bay, Mannix is up to the task.
The biggest budget movie shooting at Capitol is "Hail, Caesar," a historical epic about a Roman soldier who is conflicted about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The soldier is played by Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the biggest star under contract at Capitol Pictures. When Whitlock is kidnapped, Mannix must get to the bottom of the crime before the press discovers that he's missing.
All of this plot isn't really important. What the script and direction are really interested in is the character of Eddie Mannix. On top of dealing with the most ridiculous Hollywood problems every day, Mannix is also a deeply devout Catholic who goes to confession, ahem, religiously. He feels deep guilt over small injuries, like lying to his wife about sneaking a cigarette every once and awhile. He thinks movies are important and actually something to cherish and his job requires him to shepherd all of these flawed people through their lives.
Watching Mannix (and, by extension, Brolin) maneuver his way through a hefty selection of some of the finest actors working is where the true joy of the film lies. With excellent supporting turns from Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and an almost film stealing Alden Ehrenreich, the film never feels directionless, even as characters come and go without much resolution or import.
"Hail, Caesar!" feels like something of a hybrid of the Coen Bros. earlier work. The film takes the spirituality of "A Serious Man," the madcap energy of "O' Brother," the look into the golden age of Hollywood supplied by "Barton Fink" and the push back against the meaninglessness of life embodied in "The Big Lebowski" and "Burn After Reading." Yet, "Caesar" is wholly its own with entrancingly relentless pacing, lovingly choreographed swimming and dancing and a refreshing optimism about the importance of motion pictures to modern society.
The best work of the Coen Bros. manages to feel simultaneously tangential and essential, as if every moment of the movie matters and that every single disparate piece adds up to an almost flawless whole. On first viewing, "Caesar" is astoundingly entertaining, but doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts. There are too many scenes that exist for the witty banter and impeccable performances that don't collate into the central thesis of the film. The embarrassment of riches the film has with its characters might be time better spent with Mannix and his ever encroaching existential despair.
This is middle tier Coen Brothers work. There is too much going on to call it a straightforward comedy, but "Hail, Caesar!" still plays like a lark for the filmmaking duo. Luckily, even "lesser" Coen Bros. is still superior to 90 percent of the films released in a given year, but that's not to say this film won't grow in estimation after repeat viewings. No real work of art can truly be appreciated on first glance and the Coens are artists unsurpassed in the medium of film.
Dir. The Coen Brothers
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