The Coen Brothers are back, and the latest installment in their impressive oeuvre has been given the rather misleading title Hail, Caesar! Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title, and no, it isn’t a journey to first century B.C.E. exploring the life of a certain Roman dictator. In fact, it is an excellent period piece set in McCarthy-era Hollywood, a place filled with as many cunning and power-hungry people as ancient Rome.
Hail, Caesar! features some Coen Brothers film veterans, such as Josh Brolin from No Country for Old Men and True Grit, George Clooney from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading, and Yale graduate Frances McDormand (YSD ‘82) from Fargo. As one would expect given such a talented cast, Caesar boasts a captivating and colorful collection of characters, such as Eddie Mannix (Brolin), a problem solver employed by the fictional film studio Capitol Pictures, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), a suave and slightly airheaded superstar, and Hobie Doyle (relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, whose outstanding performance is one of the film’s highlights), an actor whose voice drawls along with a southern twang.
Although the trailers and other marketing materials make it seem as if much of the film revolves around Whitlock’s kidnapping, the story is much broader and is in reality a fascinating exploration of how Hollywood looked and functioned in the immediate post-World War II era. The Coens linger on wide shots of studios and sets in which all the elements required for making a feature film are displayed, from cameras, lights, and microphones to crewmembers and actors . A clear reverence for cinema and the filmmaking process is one characteristic that has made the Coen Brothers so beloved, and as this film progresses it increasingly feels like an homage to the creative minds that populated Hollywood in decades past. Today, computer-generated imagery and digital cameras are often meant to focus the viewer’s attention on the product instead of the process of filmmaking—so perhaps it is fitting that a film like this comes along in which one is encouraged to consider the effort put into making such entertainment possible.
In the case of this particular film, such effort does not go to waste. The Coens take the viewer on a tour of different Hollywood sets, from an expansive western desert to a mermaid’s shimmering lagoon to an aristocrat’s elegant mansion. Each of these stops is given a unique color palette, and the addition of deft camerawork and the seamless introductions of new characters immerse the viewer in the environments being presented. In fact, the transitions are so smooth that the boundary between different scenes sometimes seems to blur, and one feels as if there may be several films contained in this single work. Crucially, however, the film never feels overwhelming, and the writing and direction are so expertly executed that story and craft become sublimely synergetic.
It is a testament to the power of the name “Coen” that this film was made at all, without having its script shoved behind a pile of science fiction space operas and teenage romances. Although it is filled with witty dialogue, intriguing stories, and spectacular imagery, Caesar is much more sedately paced than most major works are today. This is a film that requires the viewer to be engaged and pensive, and it touches on an array of topics ranging from politics to religion to domestic life. It certainly contains moments of pure spectacle, such as a scene involving a pool full of synchronized swimmers and a musical number performed by sailors in a bar. For the most part, however, the Coens ask more of their viewers than the director of a superhero epic or a romantic comedy would dare. Granted, this isn’t a style that will appeal to every audience, but for those who enjoy engaging, thought-provoking cinema, Hail, Caesar! is a splendid film. But if you’re simply looking for something entertaining to pass a couple of hours, don’t be deterred; this is a tribute to the glory days of Hollywood, after all, and it’s as lighthearted as we’ve seen the Coens in several years.