I found it easy to like films from the Coen brothers. The first I truly enjoyed was “Raising Arizona” in 1987 and then that train later arrived at stations such as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.” To say that their filmmaking is quirky is to give an understatement to the word and my review today of “Hail, Caesar!” examines how they’ve really pushed quirky to the edge of surrealism. “Hail, Caesar!” is a wonderfully acted, directed and even wonderfully choreographed film, but you really never know how to describe it! For example, “Hail, Caesar!” has strange imagery but is a pitch-perfect period piece. So, sit back and enjoy it! Don’t try to understand all the Coens’ deeper (or hidden) meanings.
(2016; 106 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich)
HAIL, THE COEN BROTHERS!
I recently wrote in a review how Jason Bateman is no headliner. He’s a good, solid actor, but is simply lost or forgettable in any lead – just try “Office Christmas Party” (click here for my review). Not so with Josh Brolin! He knocks it out of the park in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” and most surely would have earned an Oscar nomination for playing “Eddie Mannix” if his part hadn’t been diluted by some of the quirky scenes that were just a bit too long and cut into having him on screen longer.
“Hail Caesar!” is the story of a day in the life of Brolin, who is a film studio’s “fixer.” Oh, yes, there was a real life studio “fixer” named Eddie Mannix! But anyway, Brolin takes care of problems from a pregnant star – remember, this is the 1950s – to one who has been kidnapped! He’s also been offered a top executive job by aviation giant Lockheed for much more money and a lot less stress. However, it’s obvious from the beginning that he’s simply as much a part of Hollywood as the stars he has to protect, guide and sometimes smack.
At its heart, “Hail, Caesar!” is about the kidnapping of headliner “Baird Whitlock” played neatly by George Clooney. He’s kidnapped by … get this … a Communist cell of entertainment writers! And while having to track down Clooney, Brolin has a bunch of other scandals, loonies and situations potentially damaging to his studio. He does this with a stolid, steely countenance and you never have any doubt who is in charge of any particular situation. The film is also punctuated by a wonderfully choreographed dance sequence!
Beyond this simple but strange outline, I’m left with few words or evaluation of the Coens’ imagery. For example, is Channing Tatum at the prow of a boat being rowed in the Pacific Ocean by Communist writers to meet a Soviet submarine off Malibu (see, quirky) an image of George Washington crossing the Delaware? It sure looked like it … and he’s carrying a dog!
My only criticism is that several of the scenes – especially from “Hobie” on the drawing room set that can only be described as painful – run too long and, well, you might say they’re a bit contrived and are the only discordant notes in the film. A couple of others, including the water scene with Scarlett Johansson, try one’s patience as well, so nothing’s ever perfect! Except “The Godfather(s),” of course.
In any case, I can’t connect any of the visual or verbal dots with any sly or obscured messages being given by the Coens other the obvious ones such as a dog named Engles (you can Google the history of communism for this one) or Brolin looking at Christ’s cross as he considers whether to take another job, but I can enjoy the film!
The cast is large and impressive, and there are impressive efforts by its members. Here’s my rundown on the A-list cast of “Hail, Caesar!” that was handled so well by the Coens:
- As I already wrote, Oscar nominee (not for this one) Brolin is pitch-perfect here. He just breathes and oozes the stern, all-knowing, Hollywood-wise personality of “Eddie Mannix.” Brolin offers everything here: His voice; his bearing; and his physical presence, which is, yes, different than his bearing. You couldn’t have cast a better actor. Further, he comes out of the gate strong and finishes the same. In fact, he should headline another movie about “Eddie Mannix” saving the studio. I haven’t seen any of Brolin’s previous work, including “” about our former president and “No Country for Old Men.” He was nominated for “Milk” but I’ll forgive that PC stinker of a film and look forward to seeing him in “Deadpool 2” next year (click here for my review of the original).
- Two-time Oscar winner (not for this one) Clooney is difficult to read in “Hail, Caesar!” On one hand, he appears to do a seamless job – he’s the somewhat vacant, but obviously not stupid star who is malleable to whatever situation (scene?) he’s in film or in life. However, he might just be mailing it in. I’ll go with the former since his speech scene at the end is really terrific work. He won his Oscars for “Argo” (co-Oscar for best picture) and in acting for Best Supporting Actor in “Syriana” and has been nominated for four others. I like him best in the “Ocean’s” franchise (click here for my review of the remake of the original – and click here for my review of the second sequel to the remake).
- I believe the most interesting character is “Hobart ‘Hobie’ Doyle,” who is played by relative Hollywood newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. You’d initially believe he’s dense and a dunce to boot, but Ehrenreich easily brings out the best in “Hobie.” He goes from vacant to actually having character, some depth and capable of personal initiative. Ehrenreich was another perfect casting choice as I can’t think of another actor who could have done better. Ehrenreich has been in “Beautiful Creatures” and “Blue Jasmine.” He’s early in his career, so keep an eye out for his future work.
- Four-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Johansson plays moody and difficult “DeeAnna Moran,” who is single and pregnant and the studio is looking for a way out of a potential PR disaster for their star of synchronized swimming flicks. A second viewing changed my initial impression of Johansson’s work on “Hail, Caesar!,” as she is really solid. Johansson is laser-focused in her scenes and she’s smooth to boot. She doesn’t elevate the role, but she gets an A-rating. Johansson has been in a couple of the superhero films so popular now (“Iron Man 2” and “The Avengers”) and I first saw her as a sibling in “Home Alone 3.”
- Oscar winner (not for this one) Tilda Swinton is briskly efficient in the roles of twin gossip columnists “Thora” and “Thessaly Thacker.” As each character she bustles in and out of scenes as she tries to get a “scoop” for her entertainment column in the newspaper. She is very solid in the role and doesn’t fall into the trap of overplaying a character almost meant to be overplayed. She won her Oscar for “Michael Clayton” and was also in “Burn After Reading” as well as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
- Tatum as movie star-communist “Burt Gurney” doesn’t have much to work with here. He mostly does dramatic turn-looks to the camera that mock the filmmaking style of the time and does the signature dance scene and then you get glimpses of him before the boat scene. After that, he’s gone. So, here’s a grade of incomplete for Channing since there isn’t any way to judge his acting ability. He’s best known for his work on the “21 Jump Street” franchise with Jonah Hill (more about him in the next paragraph) and was in “Magic Mike.”
The only conclusion I can draw from some of the big-name actors (say Jonah Hill, Ralph Finnes or Frances McDormand) working with so little screen time is that either: A) They wanted work with the Coens or B) The Coens wanted to work with them but could only provide a quick scene – especially Hill and McDormand. So, here are the actors with little screen time, but who should have received more:
- Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Hill doesn’t have to work very hard in this one as “Joe Silverman,” who’s a professional “person.” He’s onscreen so briefly that his entire speaking part was mostly in the film’s trailer. Hill impresses only because of his droll delivery of a few words. However, it’s his countenance in those few words that reveal his talent. He’s also in “War Dogs,” “Superbad” and I liked him best in his bit part in the stoner flick “Grandma’s Boy” (click here for my review). His two nominations were for Best Supporting Actor for “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Moneyball.”
- The only two real women in Brolin’s life, his wife and his secretary, are great characters with far too little screen time. Alison Pill plays Brolin’s wife, while Heather Goldenhersh plays “Natalie,” the secretary. Both women are essential in his life and both convey their respective intelligence. Both actors do wonderful, understated work that is worthy of much more screen time. Pill was in “Midnight in Paris” (click here for my review), while Goldenhersh was in “School of Rock.”
- Oscar winner (not for this one) Francis McDormand as film editor “C.C. Calhoun” is really a treat. She wings her way through her short time on film and is lucky to have a dramatic moment – she almost chokes to death when her scarf gets caught in a film editing machine. McDormand, who’s married to “Hail, Caesar!” co-director Joel Coen, won her Oscar for the Coens’ iconic “Fargo” and was nominated for “North Country,” “Mississippi Burning” and for her magnificent turn in “Almost Famous.”
- Two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Finnes displays his considerable talent as director “Laurence Laurentz,” but it appears his stuff was just stuck in the film so that Ralph FInnes could have a part. His character doesn’t move the film forward other than for a deed he’s not shown doing or even talking about. Finnes was nominated for “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient” and is “Voldemort” in the “Harry Potter” franchise. I like him best in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show.”
I don’t have time (or you the interest) to look at each of the communist writers, but they all do a really solid job and are a key component of the supporting cast.
Finally, a human troll who played “Newman” on TV’s “Seinfeld” has a bit part as “Lurking Extra” here. Wayne Knight just oozes and sweats sleaziness in the small part and you’re first thought when you see him is … “Newman!” It’s just one more example of a familiar actor with a tiny part done well.
So, there you have it: An expansive A-list cast with not enough time on the reels (yes, they used 35mm film on this one). Like the Coens, “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t conventional, but is something else!
PS: Just in case you didn’t notice (or thought I am an amateur writer – I have 30 years of experience as a writer and editor), I intentionally used exclamation points throughout the review to make a point! I didn’t just put them there as many internet writers would. I’m putting this paragraph in because you might be an amateur reader!
While I like it and critics gave it good marks, “Hail, Caesar!” didn’t score at the box office. “Hail, Caesar!” earned an anemic $30.4 million and was 89th at U.S. theaters in 2016, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide it has earned more than $63 million on its $22 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of that year was “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with $532.1 million from that money-factory franchise and second was “Finding Dory” with $486.2 million from the Disney money machine. The other films from 2016 that I have reviewed are:
- “Deadpool” (sensational anti-hero) – click here for my review
- “Dirty Grandpa” (modestly good raunch) – click here for my review
- “Office Christmas Party” (solid raunch comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Ehrenreich had the most difficult run-up to his work in “Hail, Caesar!” of any actor. He had to learn to ride a horse, play guitar and even learn rope tricks. He was quoted as saying that using spaghetti as a lasso was the toughest of all to accomplish.
- “Hail, Caesar!” was the film chosen to open the 2016 Berlin Film Festival.
- Directly from com: “Dolph Lundgren has an uncredited (initially much longer and almost entirely deleted) cameo as the submarine captain. Lundgren said that he was very honored to play the part, having never expected to be asked for a film directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.”
- Brolin also worked with the Coens on the brothers’ remake of “True Grit.”
- The character “Eddie Mannix” was previously played by Bob Hoskins in 2006’s “Hollywoodland.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The Lockheed recruiter tells Eddie the Bikini Atoll test occurred 3 weeks earlier, which places the movie in March 1954 — but the “copyright notice” shown in one of the pictures includes the Roman numeral for 1951.”
- “Highlander” himself Christopher Lambert has a small part (which name actor doesn’t outside the headliners?) as musical director “Arne Seslum” and who is the father of Johansson’s baby.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The real Eddie Mannix died in 1963. Robert Taylor and James Stewart were among his pallbearers.”
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