Hail Ceasar! is a rare and fun tribute to the days of 1950 Hollywood cinema and a real treasure to behold if you don’t mind putting up with its ludicrous plot and typical Coen brothers humour at times. This is a true Coen production, with all the usual flair you will expect to find from brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Burn Before Reading) and one in which you see their touches everywhere in a film they write, direct, produce and even edit themselves.

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Hail Caesar! takes us back to what many consider the glory days of Hollywood cinema, where the studio system was breaking down after government and court pressure forced studios to divest their movie theatres and they started to lose some power. At the same time television was also making its presence felt, threatening to pull away audiences, while within the political climate of the US, the Cold War was raging on. Hollywood responded to all this by focusing on making a lot of upbeat and escapist fair, like choreographed dance musicals, westerns or epic Roman films, as the title suggests. It was an era when cinema was the real escape from reality and a time when Hollywood went out of its way to ensure audiences continued going to the theatres. None of this is explained in the movie, but if you understand the period and context in which the film is set, it makes the world of difference in understanding what the Coens have created.

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Set in 1951, the film focuses on a big-time movie public relations officer (also known as a fixer) for Capitol Pictures named Eddie Mannix (expertly played by Josh Brolin) whose job it is to fix studio issues and ensure that the stars and directors involved in these films are kept happy and that their scandals are kept out of the press. As part of a ploy to break up the monopoly that the studio has over its employees, a group of people known simply as The Future kidnap Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a star on the studio’s biggest production, a sprawling Roman drama called “Hail Caesar”. Along the way, he has to manage some other potential public relations disasters like DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson), who has fallen pregnant out of wedlock while filming her new movie, and try and build the profile of a Western star Hobie Doyle (played by Aiden Ehrenreich and typecast as a typical singing cowboy of the likes of Kirby Grant) who is transitioning to a dramatic role much to the frustration of the film’s director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

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And through all this he needs to try and figure out who took his lead star and how can he get him back, without any bad publicity affecting the studio. No one seems to be giving him a break though and at every turn there is someone trying to interfere or interrupt him, including the pressures of two twin journalists (both played by Tilda Swinton) trying to uncover saucy details of the film stars. In addition to all the studio drama, he has to deal with the Lockheed company, who are feverishly trying to convince him to step away from the film business with an offer almost too good to refuse and also deal with his own burgeoning guilt of working long hours and lying to his wife about his recovery from smoking. There is a lot that is going on in the movie, but you feel like you really get to know Eddie Mannix by the end of the picture, even if a lot of the other characters are never developed.

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The plot is quite complex and to fully detail every aspect would be a great disservice to the film which tries to surprise you in as many ways as possible. There is a lot going on and the size of the cast is massive to the point of being almost overwhelmed with trying to figure out who’s who and who’s doing what. Needless to say, the script can be incredibly convoluted at times and if you’re not familiar with the Coen brother’s usual quirkiness or the films that the brothers are trying to pay homage to, you could become increasingly frustrated with how things play out and how seemingly improbable scenarios come together.

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That some characters almost seem insignificant to the plot come the films conclusion can perhaps be seen as its biggest down-point, but it’s all part of keeping the screen busy, developing the character of Eddie Mannix and adding opportunity for further homage. If you prepare yourself for some odd-ball caricatures and some far-fetched narrative however, you are in for a treat. The film is a lot of fun and never stops delivering on action and visual spectacle. The dialogue is filled with monologues and diatribes that subtly set up the humour and overt messages that the film is trying to convey, but despite all this it never takes itself too seriously. The Coens are not afraid to include social and political debate about communism and other social issues of the day and use every opportunity to mock Hollywood when they can.

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Hail Caesar! is certainly one of the better Coen brothers film and an epic undertaking that has been executed brilliantly. Not only is the ensemble cast and diverse characters quite complex to manage, but they have seemingly been able to get the casting of each role almost spot on and directed the many sequences perfectly. Not much of the direction is necessarily original, but this is by design, as they pay homage to the many Hollywood films of the period and try to replicate the over-the-top performances, dance and musical routines of that period. This includes a memorable dance sequence with Channing Tatum and a group of sailors, reminiscent of the Gene Kelly era and is one which Tatum in particular performs fantastically well in. It’s one of the many scenes that stand out and even more so if you are familiar with classic Hollywood.

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The cast overall do a solid job in whatever is expected of them. Outside of Brolin, no one actor gets too much screen time and so they have limited opportunities to shine, but yet they make the most of their moments and every character feels authentic and convincing, without upstaging their counterparts. The dialogue, which as mentioned can be quite complex at times, is spoken with true belief and conviction and acted as true to the stereotypical nature of the characters they portray. Apart from those already mentioned, the film also stars a host of other talented actors in various roles and scenes, including Jonah Hill, Francis McDormand, Alison Pill and Veronica Osorio. And that’s excluding many of the stars who fulfil roles as extras. It truly is quite an ensemble to put together and one which the Coens have handled masterfully.

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And perhaps the most well-crafted part of this movie is in the production design and cinematography. Everything feels appropriate to the era it is trying to depict and whether they are filming a montage of classic black and white cinema, or a western or classic dance tune, the costume, make-up and appropriate colour and brightness of everything matches the required era. Even the editing (which was done by the Coen’s themselves) suits the many films of that period and adds further to the authenticity of the experience. Some scenes may drag on a bit, but luckily they are few and its never to a point where you tire of watching.

Hail Caesar! is an (over?) indulgent love letter to classic cinema, that has bucket loads of style and flair without losing focus on its core character and plot. It sees the talented Coens at the peak of their craft and is a fun and exciting ride if you are willing to get invested in all of its complexities.

Last Updated: February 18, 2016

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Craig Risi

A man of many talents, but no sense how to use them. I could be discovering the cure for aids or finding ways to achieve world peace, but I’d rather be watching movies and writing here instead.

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