An odd thing happened just before popping my copy of the latest Coen Bros. flick into my player. Thinking back over the course of their illustrious career, I was finding it difficult to remember what their previous film was, or ever the one before that, going back to their last great project, the hilarious and underappreciated “Burn After Reading.” This led to a quick recap that revealed “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “True Grit” (nominated for ten Oscars, but winner of zero), and “A Serious Man.” All of these were decent films, but they weren’t exactly as memorable as their more well-known works. In other words, it’s been a good eight years since they made a film that’s really left a mark, which is unusual for the pair that brought us such classics as “Fargo,” “Barton Fink,” and “Raising Arizona.” With this in mind, I ventured forth into “Hail, Caesar!” in the hopes that it would offer something a little more than what we’ve seen them deliver with their last few efforts.
Taking place in the 1950s, the film follows a studio fixer at Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), as he goes about a normal day of trying to keep everything and everyone in line. The day’s activities include trying to replace a lead actor in a drama with a western star (Alden Ehrenreich), a notion that the film’s director (Ralph Fiennes) is not too pleased with, getting script approval from a group of theological experts for the studio’s big budget biblical epic (“Hail, Caesar!”), stopping a pair of gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) from spreading stories about one of the studios star’s, and mulling over a job offer from Lockheed. However, perhaps the biggest concern of the day is the disappearance of actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who has been kidnapped and held for $100,000 ransom. As the star of “Hail, Caesar!,” it’s absolutely vital that Eddie get him back at any cost so that the picture can be completed, but with so much else going on, you could count it as something of a minor miracle if he’s able to get even half of his itinerary done.
“Hail Caesar!” is the kind of film that will not only please fans of the Coen Bros, but also fans of film in general, as it’s truly a love letter to cinema and the art of filmmaking. Included in Mannix’s hectic schedule are stopovers in several different genres of film, such as westerns, drama, swimming, and dancing. Basically, it’s a tour of the kind of films you would see being made in the 50s, all wrapped up with the fascinating connective tissue of Mannix as he tries to deal with everything that’s on his plate.
Some might say that the film has a little too much happening, or that it might get too distracted as it hops from one storyline to the next, but the Coens handle the changes marvelously, flowing from one plot point to the other with ease. It could actually be said that these constant changes are one of the film’s great advantages, for if you find one section of it a little slow, then you don’t have to wait long for it to switch over to the next. That being said, not one of them even ends up having this issue, instead treating us to one bizarre, engaging storyline after another. One minute we have Mannix trying to have a serious theological discussion with religious experts (one that doesn’t pass without a little argument), while the next has him trying to deal with a swimming star and her baby, and furthermore having to decide whether he wants to change jobs. This is not even to mention the group of Communist writers that kidnap Whitlock and try to convert him to the cause. The point is, even though this might make it seem like the film is a busy one, it never once feels like it.
Going back to the art of filmmaking, these are some of the film’s most interesting and spellbinding sections. Take for instance the western star who is asked to fill in on a prestigious drama picture. We watch as he tries to conform to an entirely different set, costume, and script than he is used to dealing with, resulting in hilarious outtakes. Or take the utterly delightful sequence that has Channing Tatum as a sailor doing a song and dance in a bar, all the while allowing us to see how it’s being shot on the set. The Coens clearly have a great respect for the filmmaking from this era, showing their love for it and their desire to share that love with the audience through each of these amazing sequences.
As it has always been with the Coen Bros., the amazing ensemble that they’ve assembled must also be mentioned. The cast includes three Oscar winners (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton), three Oscar nominees (Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, and Jonah Hill), in addition to Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. Even though some of them only appear on screen for a scene or two (Hill is on screen for perhaps an entire minute), all of them do fine work bringing this rich tapestry of characters to life and helping to make this kooky collection of tales a memorable one.
What the Coen Bros. have given us with “Hail, Caesar!” is a fantastic look back at a classical age of cinema that had its very own special look and feel. Prestigious, big budget epics were still a cornerstone of the industry, as were the plethora of musicals that poured into theaters throughout the decade. The dynamic duo could have simply made a film about their passion for filmmaking, but the fact that they were able to intertwine that with something this inventive and this engaging only goes to show just how talented a pair they really are. In short, “Hail, Caesar!” marks their grand return to the great form we’re accustomed to.
“Hail, Caesar!” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture remains perfectly sharp and clear throughout the presentation, which does a great job of showing off the film’s gorgeous ‘50s-era production design and costumes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is flawless, giving you all elements of the soundtrack from the dialogue to the score in outstanding quality. Overall, the film looks and sounds fantastic, ensuring that you get the best experience possible.
Directing Hollywood (4 Minutes): A very brief look behind the scenes of the film that features interviews with the cast.
The Stars Align (11 Minutes): A featurette that explores the characters through interviews with the cast.
An Era of Glamour (6 Minutes): A featurette that discusses the film’s ‘50s production design and costumes.
Magic of a Bygone Era (6 Minutes): A featurette that goes behind the scenes of Tatum’s dance number and Johansson’s swimming sequence.
With a sharp script and an excellent ensemble, “Hail, Caesar!” is a delightful love letter to filmmaking that blends the Coen Bros.’ passion for the art with an exquisite tapestry of characters and storylines. After three good, but not particularly memorable films, it’s great to see the Coens come back with a film that’s this strong, funny, and enjoyable. It may end up meaning a lot more to film buffs than it does to general audiences, but whichever group you fall into, it’s most definitely worth the time to see the Coens’ best film in years.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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