Five Years Ago, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Was the Coens’ ’50s Hollywood Pastiche
Joel and Ethan Coen‘s movie Hail, Caesar!, which came out five years ago this month, feels an awful lot like it was assembled from 8 or 10 ideas the Coen brothers had been kicking about for the bulk of their careers. And at some point, the two just decided to toss them all into one movie.
And it’s a really fun one, featuring some of the best scenes ever put together in the Coens’ career.
The film is set at a fictional Hollywood studio and centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s production executive. The studio is making a religious picture, which is thrown into turmoil when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a cell of communist screenwriters. A younger star, singing cowboy Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) is struggling with a change in his image.
Hail, Caesar! is a bit different, as it’s best appreciated as a collection of great scenes
Meanwhile, the studio’s Esther Williams-style swimming star (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, while a duo of twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) is threatening to expose a secret from the past.
It’s a great cast, top to bottom, featuring everyone from Coen veterans Clooney, Brolin, Johannson, and Frances McDormand to newer faces in Coen-land like Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, and Jonah Hill. Clooney’s work in comedies over the years, whether with the Coens or not, has been hit-or-miss, but he’s outstanding in this. And so is Ehrenreich, whose career has since been unfairly derailed as a result of the ill-fated Han Solo movie.
While the Coens are best known for narratives that fit together seamlessly, Hail, Caesar! is a bit different, as it’s best appreciated as a collection of great scenes.
My favorite is the group of religious leaders, debating the depiction of Christ in the movie:
There’s also the scene with the communists, featuring a murderer’s row of character actors like Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed and Alex Karpovsky:
And of course, the “would that it were so simple” scene:
And then there’s the “No Dames” musical number, probably the best moment of Channing Tatum‘s career outside of the Magic Mike franchise:
The film ends with a Christian religious epiphany, one that’s practically the polar opposite of the ending of a previous Coen movie, A Serious Man.
Hail, Caesar!, perhaps owing to its February release, received a single Oscar nomination, for Best Production Design; it lost to La La Land.
The Coen brothers’ last movie was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which came out at the end of 2018, and they don’t appear to have any other announced projects in the works. Joel Coen has directed a movie version of Macbeth, called The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Ethan not involved; that film is set for release sometime this year, through A24.
In the rankings of Coen films, which Film Twitter types have been known to put together often, Hail, Caesar! should fairly go in the upper half, albeit not in the top echelon of Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and The Big Lebowski. Put it somewhere around Burn After Reading and True Grit.