“A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.”

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Staring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill
Release Date: February 5, 2016

Yea, yea, it took my long enough to get to it. But better late than never.

This Coen Brothers production takes place in 1950s Hollywood and focuses primarily on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and his stressful job of keeping the his studio’s stars on the tracks. Mannix has to juggle numerous problems all within a 48 hour period; whether it be stars getting kidnapped, doing illegal photo shoots, scandalous pregnancies and the studio forcing them into roles they are not ready for. Mannix is a busy man, and the weight on his shoulders weighs him down. He is balancing on the beam of Hollywood’s façade while contemplating taking a new cushy job involving the Hydrogen bomb.

So that seems like a lot. And it is. But Hail, Caesar! (2016) is a very busy movie with not a lot happening all at once. Mannix treks from studio, to his office, to his studio, to his home, back to the office, and back to the studio. The audience gets to see different vignettes involving different Hollywood stars when Mannix visits them on their various sets. Each little story has a bit connective tissue to each other, to Mannix and to the environment surrounding Hollywood in the 1950s.

Listening to Hail, Caesar!, one can immediately tell it is a Coen brothers written movie. The movie is written with a cadence. One that is wholly unique. Brolin acts as the pace car, and it is up to him to keep the studio on track even when the industry’s biggest stars are veering off the tracks. Each story within the main story have their own standout moments.

The funniest and arguably best moment of Hail, Caesar! stems from the character Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is Hollywood’s biggest star, and he gets kidnapped by a secret group of communists while on the set of filming the studio’s biggest budget movie of the year, “Hail, Caesar.” Whitlock is charismatically won over by the “study group” of economic thinkers, even after he is explicitly told that he was kidnapped for blackmail. The crazy characters in the room of the cliff-top chateau make for a fascinating focus group. And the way they talk around Communism and dance around it is hilarious.

Another bit you have to remember is when Mannix meets with the various religious leaders about the studio’s new Christ based movie.

The conversation between the priests and the rabbi is hilarious. Mannix deflecting all worries with his master PR skills in addition to his perplexed facial expressions act as a wonderful Yin & Yang for the conversation. Mannix can’t wrap his head around who Jesus is to each religion, and when God gets into the picture, it is all a web of interpretation. Reading into this scene, it has to be the Coen brothers fictionalizing crazy conversations they have had in boardrooms with various producers and talent fixtures. Everyone spinning their web of vision and interpretations. . When Mannix’s secretary asks at the “How’d we do?” and Mannix just raises his hand in frustration…that felt personal.

Scarlett Johansson plays the part of DeeAnna Moran, a flirty sex symbol that’s best acting component is her smile. There is an absurd over-the-top water sequence where Moran is a mermaid with a live orchestra. That is how we are introduced to Moran, but her main story comes from the fact that she is pregnant and without a husband. Mannix fixates on the idea of putting Moran together with director Arne Seslum (Christopher Lambert), as they have been rumored to have a thing in the past. However…Mannix doesn’t know that Seslum is married in his home country…so this plan isn’t going to work. The little short story of Moran’s baby conundrum is fixed with an adoption story and the aid of the fixer, Joe SIlverman (Jonah Hill). This is a case where the Coen brothers can pull anyone they want to. It is like Wes Anderson now. Hill is in the movie for less than five minutes but he is fascinatingly memorable.

The one thing I personally recall from when Hail, Caesar! was released was that many were calling for the Alden Ehrenreich renaissance. Playing the part of poorly trained Western actor Hobie Doyle, this was a rise to prominence for Ehrenreich. It is kind of crazy how the story told about Doyle in Hail, Caesar! mirrors that of Ehrenreich’s career. He is called up to the big leagues and put in a major motion picture that will have a tough of press and a ton of love. The actor was not necessarily the first choice of the director, but the studio wanted him as a new face for money making. Doyle’s missteps in Hail, Caesar! were a precursor to Ehrenreich’s journey with Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). He was put under major scrutiny for his performance as Han Solo, and since then he has been taking a break from movie acting. He appeared in the show Brave New World on Peacock (so nobody watched it), but now he has the absurd fascinating movie Cocaine Bear (2023) and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023) on the docket. He will need a comeback, and this is a step in the right direction.

The last vignette I am going to touch on is the one I liked the least. Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, a young up-and-coming stud actor. We get the classic 50s (and older) Hollywood sing and dance number, and I mean we get all of it. The dance goes on for an incredibly long time, and it made me want the Coen Brothers to direct a musical. It was staged so well, and I nerded out with the over-the-top shots of the stage hands putting the floor boards back to together during the single shot scene. That part of the Burt story I liked. I did not enjoy his conclusion, which wrapped into Whitlock’s kidnapping by communist. This was a step too far within the screenplay. The submarine off the coast. All of it. This is the only part of the movie were my eyes rolled and my attention waned.

Let’s not forget to mention that Tilda Swinton played Thora and Thessaly Thacker, playing the part of two different type of Hollywood reporters. Ralph Fiennes plays director Laurence Laurentz, the one doom with trying to get something out of Hobie Doyle. Frances McDormand also makes an appearance playing C.C. Calhoun, an esteemed film editor who works in the shadows of Hollywood’s bright bulbs.

Hail, Caesar! was only nominated for one Oscar in 2017, and that was Best Production Design. It is 100% warranted. It is a bit surprising to not see a Coen Brothers movie nominated in Best Original Screenplay. Looking at the nominees at the time, I totally understand four of the five; Manchester By The Sea (2016), Hell Or High Water (2016), La La Land (2016) and The Lobster (2016). The one I have not seen is 20th Century Women (2016). Someone people may say that a script with a series of vignettes isn’t worthy, but to that I say, fuck you.

Also, let’s just give a shoutout to Josh Brolin. This is his third Coen Brothers movie, with the other two being No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010). Without a shadow of a doubt, the character of Eddie Mannix is the best performance for Brolin among the three movies. The exacerbated expression that is constantly washed over his face is exhausting. The dialogue he delivers is also crisp and fast, far different from his characters of Llewelyn Moss and Tom Chaney. Brolin said when doing interviews for Hail, Ceasar! that he gets the absurdity of the Coen Brothers, and that chemistry was incredibly prevalent in the movie.

Hail, Caesar! is not one of the most heralded Coen Brothers ventures, but it is a memorable one to pick snippets of. For example, it is not as strong a movie as Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), but it has more memorable moments. The biggest compliment you can give the directors/writers is that you know when you are watching a movie that is theirs. There is a je ne sais quo that makes it all work, even when you aren’t expecting it.

STANKO RATING: B (3.5/5 Stars)


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