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First Reviews: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Is the Coens at Their Best

First Reviews: 'Hail, Caesar!' Is the Coens at Their Best

“Hail, Caesar!”

The reviews are in for the Coen Brothers’ latest film “Hail, Caesar!”, a screwball send-up of Hollywood’s Golden Age filled with glamorous movie stars, opportunistic gossip columnists, communist study groups, and a studio “fixer” (Josh Brolin) eager to keep everything in check and maintain the image of “the pictures” as perfect and sunny. It’s another winning picture for the Coen Brothers who have won over critics with its whimsical tone and its winning performances, especially Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a goofy studio actor who’s more perceptive than his Southern drawl lets on. Though some critics are ready to name “Hail, Caesar!” as one of their best and others are glad to see a full-blown comedy from them, some critics have dinged the film for its slow pacing and its skeleton narrative along with its too-intermittent laughs. Overall, “Hail, Caesar!” is an oasis in the early release calendar desert and will certainly inspire debates about the Coens’ virtues and failings for weeks to come.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com

It’s been some time since Joel and Ethan Coen have made a full-out comedy. The producing, writing, and directing (and editing, too, albeit under an assumed name) brother team’s last three films, “A Serious Man,” “True Grit,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” certainly haven’t lacked for funny moments. But “Man” was an apocalyptic riff painted on two inches of ivory, “True Grit” a rousing adventure that gradually mutated into a memory play about loss and mortality, and “Llewyn Davis” was at least in part a deeply sad story of inescapable existential failure. In other words, pretty heavy s**t. Their new film, “Hail Caesar!” is an exhilarating switchup: A comic fable that’s both deftly clever and irrepressibly goofy, it is also, from stem to stern, the sweetest and sunniest film the Coens have ever made. Although you might not guess that from its opening shot, of a sculpture of a crucified Christ figure in a Catholic church.

David Ehrlich, Slate

What is “Hail, Caesar!”? What isn’t “Hail, Caesar!”? It’s a comedy, a noir, a historical epic, a musical (of two different varieties), and a melodrama. It’s a movie about the glory days of the industry that churns them out, and how the system so often resembled 1,000 spinning plates wobbling in perfect harmony for a split second. It’s a film about faith, and the pivotal role that it plays in one man’s search for meaning amidst the chaos of existence. It’s a tale of the Christ, told by two Jews who wouldn’t trust Jesus to save a cat out of a tree, let alone someone’s mortal soul. That is to say: It’s a Coen brothers movie, and one of their very best.

Mike Ryan, Uproxx

Hail, Caesar!” is almost a more whimsical companion piece to the Coens’ 2013 masterpiece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” — only this time, instead of folk music, it’s about the golden age of film. Instead of “Please Mister Kennedy,” we get Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney performing a showstopper of a dance number that will have people talking about it probably until our nearest star expands and engulfs the Earth in flames. Instead of Al Cody’s album “Five & Twenty Questions,” we get Cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle’s “Lazy Ol’ Moon.” To be honest, I’m not sure whether to call “Hail, Caesar!” an homage or parody, or a condemnation of Red Scare Hollywood. I guess probably it’s all of those things. Who’s to say, really? (Okay, I guess them.) Regardless, it’s already shot to the top part of my nonexistent “favorite Coen brothers movies” list.

Andrew Pulver, The Guardian

Not for the first time, the Coen brothers have reached back to the studio sound stages and producers’ offices of the Hollywood golden age to find their material. Their parallel film is “Barton Fink,” in which earnest playwright John Turturro heads to Los Angeles to write wrestling pictures. “Hail, Caesar!” is a much sunnier picture, and more purely comedic than its sepulchral predecessor; it’s also put together with a lissom confidence and a breeziness that more than compensates for a gossamer lightness when it comes to substance.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

The plot never runs out of steam. But you’ll soon see the story as a handy excuse for dazzling bits of business: a strand of spaghetti turned into a lasso; an excruciatingly funny piece of on-set dialogue direction (some cowboys will never become urbane smoothies); and Channing Tatum in a screwy-sailor dance number that plays like a reason to make the film. Purring over it all is that great wizard Michael Gambon, whose stuffy, orotund narration supplies a self-mockery that’s our cue not to take any of this very seriously. Is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, occasionally seen in a church confession box, actually in pursuit of something higher than all this? Don’t be fooled by the backdrop.

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush

The Coens’ lighter movies (including “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which takes a similarly absurdist view of corporate culture of the same period) tend to be less popular and less critically acclaimed than their dramas and thrillers, and that trend will likely continue with “Hail, Caesar!” But beneath the (sometimes hysterically funny) gags, is a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the same issues that bubble through Joel and Ethan Coen’s more serious pictures; the folly of man, the nature of faith, and the terror of trying to figure out what path through life is the correct one to take. My hunch is repeat viewings will reveal “Hail, Caesar!” as one of the Coens’ most serious pictures, as well as their silliest.

Michael Snydel, The Film Stage

Hail, Caesar!” proudly lives up to its premise of a film about Hollywood — but, moreover, it feels at times like a rebuke to the Coens’ misguided reputation as miserabilists. Those that have described “A Serious Man” as sadism for its treatment of the hapless Larry Gopnik or complained about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which centers on a character for whom misfortune is in constant orbit around their world, should find that “Hail, Caesar!” is simply a delight from first to last frame. There’s nary a moment when this film isn’t poking fun at itself. This is a heartfelt lampooning of Hollywood that shrinks big egos as often as it skewers inside-baseball filmmaking bits such as outtakes from unfinished dallies. Aside from an uproarious set piece in a room with religious leaders of all stripes, which could be cheekily dubbed existentialist screwball, “Hail, Caesar!” is far less enamored with bigger questions than the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre. However, their pet themes are still ever-present here — faith vs. reason, grand machinations for small measures — and are buried even more snugly than usual within their signature nesting dolls of genre.

Jake Cole, Slant Magazine

Hail, Caesar!’s” diffuse momentum doesn’t always work to its favor, often resulting in plots, characters, and performances that are partially etched; Clooney, for one, displays only in flashes the self-effacing buffoonery he brought to his prior collaborations with the Coens. Nonetheless, the omnidirectional assembly permits strange but wonderful sights that could not easily have been shoehorned into a more focused feature: a tap dance from a sailor musical that slowly foregrounds the homoeroticism of a films such as “Anchors Aweigh”; a Soviet submarine docking offshore near a house whose space-age design suggests the work of John Latuner. The overall subject of the film, of the bricolage of complexes and manias that keeps Hollywood running, has been covered one too many times for even the Coens to make truly fresh again. Nevertheless, their idiosyncrasies elevate the film above the level of a mere creative exercise, and the obvious giddiness that pervades their pastiche of forgotten fads goes a long way toward countering the reductive view of the filmmakers as snide pessimists.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

At the same time, these ingredients rarely congeal into a single vision. Random cameos from Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand are amusing enough, but don’t contribute enough to the world for their appearances to register as much more than cheeky asides. And even as it reaches for an outrageous Communist fantasy somewhere near its third act, “Hail, Caesar!” ultimately sizzles with an abrupt ending that suggests the Coens didn’t know where to stop. In a less exuberant version of this movie, that might make the whole enterprise lose its appeal. But the confidence of the Coens’ freewheeling collage sends a different message — that even a minor work from this pair can hit all their sweet spots.

Tim Robey, The Telegraph

It’s doubtful the Coens would take much of this as cutting criticism. Their film’s through-line wants to have a shrugging, so-what insouciance – you could almost call it limply plotted on purpose. Whole subplots like Johansson’s fizzle out with barely a raised eyebrow. But it’s still a bit of a shame. Not for the first time, the Coens are doffing some elaborate headwear of their own to Preston Sturges, king of screwball, and you wish they were temperamentally more inclined to make their homage work with the tumbling skill and breathless ease that his films did. Instead, “Hail, Caesar!” keeps stumbling over its own best ideas as we stop to appreciate them – ditching momentum, preferring gaps for applause.

Nick Schager, The Playlist

Ultimately, “Hail, Caesar! moves so furiously between its disparate characters’ plights that even its funniest moments — especially a prolonged attempt by an oh-so-serious director (Ralph Fiennes) to get Hobie to drop his southern drawl for a 1920s drawing-room drama — elicit only a mild chuckle before the film careens to another point of interest. Tethering together this wacko maelstrom is Eddie, who’s tasked with running this “circus” even as he contemplates a cushy job offer from Lockheed Martin, and whom Brolin embodies as a no-nonsense fixer determined to engineer and prop up various fictions — taking place both in front of, and behind, the camera — by hook or by crook. Like everyone else involved, he’s more of a cartoon than a fully realized character, often lost amidst the Coens’ many vignettes positing stories as comforting (and, oftentimes, revelatory) lies. Yet in bookending trips to church confession, Eddie attains a measure of depth by expressing a heartfelt desire for personal truth — and, in a final twist that seemingly articulates the Coens’ own beliefs, his ultimate epiphany involves realizing that true contentment comes from the one thing (artificial or not) that makes him genuinely happy: the movies.

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

A kick for those who’ve distractedly thumbed through “Hollywood Babylon,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s bustling comedy “Hail, Caesar!” looks back to the waning days of moviedom’s golden age: specifically, to 1951, when big-studio fixers were still tidying up the messes left by the talent (scrubbing now done by publicists and lawyers). As we’d expect, the Coens’ remembrance of this bygone era is mordant, though not as enjoyably salacious as Kenneth Anger’s legendary collection of Tinseltown scandal. But the brothers’ latest also has a certain buoyancy — a quality rarely associated with their films, especially the bleak “Barton Fink” (1991), their first treatment of studio-system Hollywood and its pathologies. The fizziness, though, proves fleeting, and “Hail, Caesar!” too often goes flat.

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