HAIL, CAESAR! The Coen Brothers’ Love Letter to Cinema [Blu-review]

by Jon Partridge

The Coen Brothers’ latest is a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood. Hail, Caesar! folds in elements of satire and farce while offing up breezy commentary on fame, homosexuality, religion, and communism. It’s lighter than recent fare such as Inside Llewyn Davis or True Grit, and filled with the usual Coen eccentricities. It’s perhaps their most polarizing and unstraightforward piece of film-making since The Big Lebowski, and it’s an utter delight.

Hail, Caesar! could easily be re-titled “A Day in the Life of Eddie Mannix,” the head of production and general “fixer” at Capitol Pictures. During the production of Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, the studio’s biggest feature yet, its star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped. While negotiating his release with a mysterious group holding him hostage, Mannix must contend with starlet DeeAnna Moran’s (Scarlett Johansson) unexpected pregnancy, appeasing disgruntled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), grooming Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) for a mainstream picture, and the snooping around by rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton).

It’s 1951, and the motion picture studios are churning out musicals, biblical epics, westerns, and genteel romances. The loose narrative on which the film hangs offers the Coens the chance to revisit this golden age and present their own take on each. Hail, Caesar! flits from one genre to another. Scenes of sailors tap dancing segue into a synchronized swimming spectacular, a wild west serenade by moonlight, or a “so simple” lesson in elocution that may go down as my favorite moment in a film all year. In between we get a look behind the scenes as Coens pull away from filming to show the reality of the industry: the problems, the wheeling and dealing, the day to day drudgery, and the more bizarre and outlandish happenings as the Hollywood stars live their lives of glitz and glamour.

This adoration of film permeates every aspect of the movie, most notably resplendent production design from art director Jess Gonchor, costume designer Mary Zophres, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, imbuing every frame with a truly “old school” feel. Also contributing to the ambiance is a rousing score by Carter Burwell and original songs in collaboration with Henry Krieger and Willie Reale. The Coens bring in elements of their previous pictures too: the period styling and farcical nature of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, a kidnapping plot straight out of Raising Arizona/The Big Lebowski, the thoughtful contemplation of A Serious Man, and a brilliant, sprawling cast that surpasses that of Burn After Reading. It’s technically impressive whilst still showcasing an impressive artistic and emotional flourish.

While trailers suggest Clooney is the star, the picture belongs to Brolin’s Mannix, a man whose devotion to his family, piety to God, and devotion to the movies grounds the frenetic happenings unfolding around him. This is a man who keeps the studio running and the stars in line, in front of and behind the camera. The mystery of the kidnapping isn’t the point here; it’s just watching this man, grafting away to hold together a studio and its stars to keep the films rolling and dollars coming in. Brolin balances the gruffness with a relatable attitude, a grounded man striding through a realm of fantasy, rooting for the whole endeavor. Clooney shows his usual self-deprecating charm verging on the buffoonish. Scarlett Johansson emanates a genuine ‘movie star glow’; likewise Channing Tatum tap dances and table hops like Gene Kelly in his prime. Alden Ehrenreich is a wonderful “bad actor” and Tilda Swinton continues her chameleonic work by playing twin gossip columnists. Even fleeting appearances by Jonah Hill’s “professional person,” Ralph Fiennes as the articulate and exasperated Laurence Laurentz, and Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun smoking in a room packed with nitrate film are extraordinarily memorable. Joel and Ethan Coen are so good at crafting both with their writing and direction that the whole cast gets a chance to shine, using the wealth of talent at their disposal magnificently.

The Coens have taken a critical look at the film industry before with Barton Fink, even using the same studio as here, but Hail, Caesar! serves as a more fanciful and lighter companion piece. Eddie Mannix was a actual famous fixer, and his existence turns this film into something of a satire, albeit one that feels entirely real. The real Mannix had to deal with more nefarious happenings, and plenty has been written about it. What we have here is a look at Hollywood through rose tinted glasses. Scandals such as drugs, sexual deviancy (as it was labelled at the time), and even murder are portrayed in a more palatable light.

Their back catalog have always presented tales where justice wins out, nefarious types always get their comeuppance. It would jibe with that sensibility to portray things in a true light; instead it’s like a screwball filter has been used while looking at the darker corners of the industry. Their Hollywood is a giddy, irreverent thing rather than something too untoward. They cleverly cast dispersion on every facet of the film industry while still managing to preserve a reverence for it. Their Mannix provides a moral center, his regular trips to confession driving that point home, and his inability to separate himself from something that takes so much effort only adds to its luster. This approach to “smooth the edges” is perhaps the one failing of the film. It remains quirky, never solidifying the threat or danger. There is a insubstantial feel to it, and some plots fall by the wayside (Johansson’s in particular) as we dip in and out of these tales. Some will experience whiplash, others unadulterated joy at what is in essence a love letter to the magic of film.

THE PACKAGEThis Blu-ray of Hail, Caesar! is an excellent transfer. Incredibly warm images, deep colors and great textures and detail. It’s a film that absolutely sparkles, and the efforts of the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work is well showcased here. Special features are plentiful and listed below.

The Coen Brothers have been making their mark on Hollywood for decades, creating acclaimed movies with their unmistakable brand of humor and unique storytelling style. As Joel and Ethan Coen discuss why they wanted to set their film in 1950s Hollywood, the all-star cast talks about working with this talented duo.

Who better to appear in a film about Golden Age Hollywood and its stars than today’s biggest and brightest A-list talent? George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Alden Ehrenreich, and Frances McDormand all join the Coen brothers in their Hollywood playground. The cast shares what drew them to the project, the secrets of the unique and zany characters they play and how the Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! differs from the Hollywood they know.

From the costumes to the sets, no details were spared in Hail, Caesar! and the production designer, costume designer and other key design professionals sit down to talk about how this exciting era was returned to the big screen.

Hail, Caesar! features two classic-in-the-making musical numbers: an aquatic spectacle featuring Scarlett Johansson and a rousing tap dance from Channing Tatum. The cast and crew explain the process of bringing these scenes to life, from costumes to choreography and everything in between.

All the extra features give good insight into the production of Hail, Caesar! The merging of practical effects with CGI makes the final product a resplendent, classic affair. The interviews show the charm of both filmmakers and cast alike, those Coens are just so darn affable. The package contains discs in both DVD and Blu-ray as well as a UV digital download code.

THE BOTTOM LINEHail, Caesar! is a very handsome looking film and this release shows it off well with extras that deepen the appreciation for the Coens’ efforts. The film is a quirky, oddball affair that is sure to baffle some but bedazzle the rest. A sublime comedy, verging on the farcical, lavishing both critique on the industry as well as an almost giddy reverence for film. An absolute thing of joy to behold.

Hail, Caesar! is available from Universal Home Entertainment on Blu-ray and DVD from June 7th, 2016.

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