Film Review: "Hail, Caesar!"
"Hail, Caesar!", the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is set in Hollywood in the early 1950s, the final years before the collapse of the studio system. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio exec whose job entails putting out all the fires started by the stars of the various films in production at the studio. These stars include George Clooney as an actor in a Ben Hur-like epic who gets kidnapped, Scarlett Johansson as the star of an 'aquamusical', similar to the ones starring Esther Williams, and Channing Tatum, who plays a Gene Kelly-like dancer starring in a sailor musical. The amount of time and detail given to these movies-within-the-movie is evidence of the brothers' love and appreciation for moviemaking, without which the movie would be in danger of feeling hollow and disingenuous.
One of the earliest moments of the film establishes a comparison between Brolin's Mannix and Jesus, martyrs taking on the sins of others, a theme which carries throughout the film. The central conflict facing Mannix is whether or not he should leave his stressful job at the studio for an "easy" position at an aerospace corporation. His struggle to decide takes the film to some interesting thematic places, helping it amount to much more than its low-on-plot structure, as it explores whether the movies are a business, an art form, or maybe even a religion. This depth should not come as a surprise, given that the Coens are such deliberate filmmakers. Every scene, every character, every line of dialogue has a meaning (and a double meaning) that contribute to the film's larger significance.
Brolin delivers the strongest performance, infusing Mannix with a tenderness that nicely balances his gruff exterior. Clooney, playing a not very intelligent actor, is solid riffing on his movie star persona. The rest of the cast, which includes Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, do what they can with only a couple of scenes each.
Subplots involving Johansson and Tatum's characters don't really go anywhere, and there are only sporadic truly laugh out loud moments. But in the end, the Coens have made a genuinely fun movie about movies that has no shortage of deeper thoughts.