Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers return to Hollywood, with George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson in tow.

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Hail Caesar

Hollywood, 1951. Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures production exec and top studio fixer, is having another brutal day. Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the guy who gets the call whenever there's a PR crisis to finesse or a messy scandal to be sponged up. Right now he's dealing with a wayward starlet who needs to be whacked back into line, and a hayseed cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) who's been disastrously miscast in a sleek high-society drama. Then there's DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of the studio's popular aquatic musicals, who while not married at the moment is nevertheless pregnant. And twin-sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) are sniffing around, too. What next?

That question is quickly answered when Mannix receives a ransom demand for the return of dimwitted dreamboat Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently in the final stages of shooting a Biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! Whitlock has been abducted by a group called The Future—what's that all about?—and if he can't be retrieved for his big climactic scene with Jesus, the movie will collapse. Christ.

Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen last visited Capitol Pictures in their 1991 Barton Fink. Now the time is 10 years later, and we find Hollywood roiled by a nationwide Red Scare and the encroachment of television, along with all the usual ego-fueled idiocy attendant upon the making of motion pictures. It's a rich period, and the Coens' satirical approach to it is appreciatively affectionate. The movie is filled with vintage gossip references (one character has had the pleasure of shaving Danny Kaye's back) and semi-real-life characters (the actual Eddie Mannix was a legendary MGM fixer). And the picture's obsessive detail—a credit to the Coens' longtime production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres—and luscious cinematography (Roger Deakins once again) are gorgeous throughout.

But the movie is very loosely structured, and its narrative through-line—Mannix's one-after-another responses to the various calamities, and his temptation by a job offer from the Lockheed Corporation—isn't all that interesting. Despite Brolin's energetic efforts, his character—a devoutly Catholic family man—is a bland figure in the middle of much livelier story elements.

But there are several knockout scenes, most of them period genre recreations. Johansson, playing a character modeled on swimsuit icon Esther Williams, is terrific in a production number that has her splashing around in a mermaid tail among a squad of synchronized aqua-goddesses and then rocketing up toward the overhead camera on a towering gush of water. And Channing Tatum, as Capitol dance star Burt Gurney, brings off a spectacular salute to Gene Kelly in a barroom song-and-tap scene with a crew of high-kicking sailors. Ehrenreich's Hobie Doyle, the miscast cowboy, gets to display some really impressive lariat expertise, and has a wonderful dim-bulb dialogue-fluffing scene with Ralph Fiennes, playing his quietly exasperated director. Tilda Swinton, in a series of elaborately feathered hats, makes a great pair of gossip sharks; and even Jonah Hill, popping up for about a minute as a studio sub-fixer, gets to contribute a wacky solution to the DeeAnna pregnancy problem (the same one employed for Loretta Young after she was inconveniently impregnated by Clark Gable).

The Coens' drollest conception is the group of kidnappers called The Future, who are holding Whitlock in a swank Malibu beach house. These characters turn out to be a cadre of Marxist screenwriters who revile the capitalist studio system (there's even a Professor Marcuse among their number!) and have been angrily packing their scripts with commie propaganda. Unfortunately, their philosophical interactions with the moronic Whitlock aren't as funny you'd hope, much in the way that Mannix's confessional exchanges with a priest don't really pay off, either. Although, as you'd expect, there are glimmers of amusement there, too. After having slapped one of his many witless actors, Mannix confesses, "I struck a movie star in anger." "Five Hail Marys," the priest says.

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  1. Cohen stuff can be great, or deep, or fluffy mediocre.
    I might wait for it on netflix since this looks like the fluffy mediocre category.

  2. The first few times I saw ads for this movie, I didn’t catch that it was a Coen Bros movie – they’re one of the few that I’ll definitely go see without knowing anything else about the film.

    1. I really liked their remake of true grit.

      1. I was irritated that anybody even MADE a remake of True Grit, but I saw it and really liked it, too.

        1. My sentiments exactly.

        2. It was NOT a remake of the John Wayne film. It was a new adaption of the novel upon which both films are based. Not the same thing. Just like Red Dragon is another adaption of the eponymous novel, not a remake of the earlier adaption, Manhunter.

  3. These characters turn out to be a cadre of Marxist screenwriters who revile the capitalist studio system (there’s even a Professor Marcuse among their number!) and have been angrily packing their scripts with commie propaganda.

    That was pretty typical during the McCarthy era, even before Kirk Douglas broke the blacklist when he listed Dalton Trumbo as a screenwriter for Spartacus. Caligua’s interrogation scene in The Robe, for instance, is such a ham-fisted metaphor of a Congressional hearing they may as well have replaced the SPQR on the Roman throne with HUAC.

    1. Amazing how that was, huh? It’s like when I read The Pledge, novel by Howard Fast, & wound up sympathizing somewhat w Nixon?oh, all right, not really sympathizing w Nixon (it’d take a lot to do that to me), but at least shouting back at the book that some of the anti-communist measures were not as bad as he’d implied, even by his own description. For instance, teaching “the advisability of communism” is not the same as teaching about communism.

      1. Anti-communist measures were just a response to all the communism. McCarthyism was horribly slandered by leftists in the media, entertainment, and universities. Institutions which are now all marxist dominated. As far as I’m concerned, every leftist who was destroyed by McCarthyism was just an act of heroism on McCarthy’s part.

  4. I have a minor question for Mr Loder: is the Burt Gurney | Channing Tatum character supposed to be gay? There seems to be some joke in the trailer about ridiculously homoerotic choreography in the character’s dance number (with the Seamen no less)

    1. The implied perception of male dancers as gay might just be a touch of period authenticity. But I dunno…

  5. I don’t know. This doesn’t seem very diverse.

    1. Idris is too street for the Cohens.

    2. not enough smart people?

  6. Reason staff, eh? What are you hiding, Reason?

  7. Insufficient Negritude. Irish will like it.

    1. Channing Tatum is so attractive that he makes me think the Gay Thoughts my parents sent me to that camp to get rid of, though, so I shan’t be seeing this film.

      My parents paid good money to de-homofy me and I refuse to go back on the word of Jesus Christ just for 2 hours of staring at that scrumptious man who haunts my dreams.

      1. You want to be cucked by Idris Elba. ADMIT IT, BIGOT!

        1. No, no, no. If there’s anyone Irish wants to be cucked by it’s Sam Jackson.

          Actually he wants to watch Sam Jackson have gay sex with Channing Tatum while he masturbates in a corner while crying, using his tears as lubricant and begging Jesus for forgiveness.

          1. *begins slow clap, staring in wonder*

          2. Cucked by or cucked on?

    2. #coenssowhite

  8. Strange that Loder mentions which actor plays each character, except for Clooney’s Baird Whitlock. It’s a typo I guess.

    1. Oops — thanks for catching…

  9. The whole project is a study in squandered opportunity. The Coens have become dredgers in reverse. Everything they’ve touched lately comes out shallower than it appears from the surface. The depths they see in the works are lame, petty winks, nods and nudges. Get it, elbow, elbow, get it? They are not pulling it off these days and the critics feel compelled to pretend that they are.

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  11. What would be fun is if The Future were from the future, esp. if it was approximately our time that they were from.

    1. Just listened to a podcast review of Gunga Din by some do-gooding millennials who spent the first 5-8 minutes of the review talking about the “problematicness” of Gunga Din. (Having Sam Jaffe play an Indian, etc.)

      Imagine time-travelling SJW-types who go back in time not to change history, but a movie about history.

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  15. I enjoyed it. There were some interesting ideas about religion and about storytelling itself.

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  20. I just saw this tonight. As a very long time fan of the Coen’s (“Miller’s Crossing” being my favorite until now), I have to say that “Hail, Cesar!” made the best first impression on me of any of their movies (including “Raising Arizona”, which was instantly my favorite movie until that time.) Two of my favorites scenes were: Josh Brolin consulting with the clerics of four different religions on the acceptability of the portrayal of Christ in “Hail, Cesar!”, and the scene in which George Clooney tells Herbert Marcusa (a slight parody of Herbert Marcuse) about his personal experiences. The reaction of Marucsa to the naive Communism of Clooney is absolutely priceless. I loved this movie.

  21. And, of course, I meant “Ceasar.”

    1. we know EXACTLY what you meant…

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