You can’t go wrong with the Coen brothers. Even their off films (see our worst-to-best ranking here) are far better than those of most directors, and are always packed with savory pleasures.
Thus “Hail, Ceasar!” qualifies as B-tier Coens, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t often deliciously entertaining, especially for Golden Age cinephiles who will get a kick out of seeing Channing Tatum in a sailor uniform tap-dancing (almost) like Gene Kelly, or Scarlett Johansson squeezed into an emerald Esther Williams mermaid outfit, surrounded by Busby Berkeley-esque synchronized swimmers and spouting fountains.
The Coens put Josh Brolin front and center in this broad comedy, a 50s McCarthy era Hollywood valentine they’ve been planning to do with George Clooney ever since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” but finally finished writing. Brolin is straight man Eddie Mannix, the studio fixer at Capitol Pictures (shot on the Warner Bros. lot), who is constantly trouble-shooting productions, saving errant stars from the tabloids—or rival twin gossip columnists deliciously played by Tilda Swinton—and trying to be a better man. While he puts on a strong front in public, we see him constantly confessing his sins to a priest.
Mannix cares for his debauched children, from a pregnant swimming star (Johannson) who needs to get married and a hopalong cowboy trying to speak proper English in a drawing room comedy (Alden Ehrenreich) to his “Hail, Caesar!” leading man Baird Whitlock (Clooney) who has been kidnapped by a gang of disgruntled Communist writers. When Mannix finally gets Whitlock back, he earnestly spouts the Communist propaganda he has learned. That’s when Mannix slaps him silly. Yes, the Coens are in silly mode here, affectionately paying homage to their forebears as they struggle to do them proud, with varying degrees of success.
Watch a behind the scenes featurette about “Hail, Caesar!” and read reviews of the film from around the web below.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire:
“[E]ven 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.”
Justin Chang, Variety:
“The Coens harbor no illusions that the glossy tuners and
sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear were high art, but they’ve nonetheless
fashioned a sophisticated yet utterly sincere tribute to what Andre Bazin
called “the genius of the system,” and it touches an almost hypnotic chord of
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
“The Coens’ reimagining of a real Hollywood tough guy is
interesting for insiders, but in their first order of business, that of making
a rousing comedy about the Hollywood of 65 years ago, they’ve fallen rather
short. There is amusement to be had, engaging actors to admire and beautiful
craftsmanship to behold, but the entertainment quotient is below their usual
standard when it comes to the films they target for a mass audience, of which
this is one.”
Melissa Anderson, The Village Voice:
“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.”
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out:
“The plot never runs out of steam, but you’ll soon see it as
an excuse for dazzling bits of business: a spaghetti strand turned into a
lasso, an excruciatingly funny piece of on-set dialogue direction (some
cowpokes 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