Review: 'Hail, Caesar!'

by Maria Popova

Photo Courtesy of whataculture.com

Describing Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film Hail, Caesar! in one word would be practically impossible and mortifyingly undermining. But if one word had to be chosen, it would most certainly be “overwhelming.”

The film embodies a grandiose show with richly layered historical references. There, the most serious concerns of the post-World War II era in the United States are presented humorously, deceptive idealizations are ridiculed and most black and white issues are presented in an enormous range of color.

Set in the early ’50s Hollywood Golden Age , Hail, Caesar! allows a viewer to experience a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)—a studio manager at Capitol Pictures whose duties include finding a father for the aquatic musical star’s child, negotiating with capricious film directors, sly journalists and talentless cowboys, and sometimes rescuing stars kidnapped by the Reds—all while being offered a tempting job with a higher pay and lower stress levels involved.

But as it has been repeatedly proven before, everything about Hollywood is addictive. Initially lured by its unyielding glamour, people come there to stay imprisoned by its duality. Everything in this world looks different from the way it actually is.

There, in this world of glamour, an unearthly beautiful diva DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant from an unknown individual and has to get married urgently, not as much for the sake of her own reputation as for the sake of maintaining an alluring image of the Hollywood Dream. There, a handsome and seemingly shallow cowboy turns out to be not that dumb after all. The leader of traditionally all-American sailors troupe (Channing Tatum) turns out to be a communist conspirator and the Caesar himself (George Clooney) is kidnapped and brainwashed by the reds.

The movie revolves around the overwhelming paranoia that followed World War II and the Red Scare. Yet, in Hail, Caesar! the communist threat is rather an objective reality. Much like the historical events in the ’50s, when a number of Hollywood leading screenwriters were prosecuted for presumable involvements with the communists, the Coen brothers place a group of communist accomplices, who simply and dramatically call themselves “The Future,” in the very heart of Hollywood.

As it turns out, the dangerous communists in the film are nothing more than a group of intellectuals and screenwriters. They gather together and enjoy crust-free canapés while discussing social theories quoting Marx’s Capital, brag about subtle communist propaganda they have purposefully inserted right in famous Hollywood motion pictures to promote the “ultimate” social structure.

The most amusing and the wittiest irony is concealed in the fact that Coen brothers portray communists as intellectuals in love with idea but unable to live under it according to their beloved Das Kapital. After all, this privileged intelligentsia residing in a gorgeous Los Angeles mansion hardly knows anything at all about equal opportunities. They preach “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as a theoretically pleasing but practically impossible hymn.

This irony climaxes when the front seaman escapes on a Russian submarine to play a “Soviet Man” for Mosfilm. Wittily, the Soviet man-to-be readily takes the briefcase with the ransom for the captured Caesar with him.

As a result, the Russians get the money, the dreamers stay with their ideals, and Clooney’s character end up being beaten up by frustrated Mannix. The chaotic drama is accompanied by pleasant references to the infamous Hollywood Blacklists and famous social philosophers known for their criticism of entertainment business and capitalism.

The conclusion offers itself: managing a film studio is much like managing a Zoo, but crazier. Joel and Ethan Coen most certainty make sure to depict its insanity and messiness in all its colors.

The film is colorful not just figuratively, but literally. The striking aesthetics of the motion picture cannot possibly go unnoticed even by the most pragmatic viewer.

The color palette is composed deliberately creating the picture of the colorful heavenly dreamland—Hollywood. This seems to be yet another irony created by the Coen brothers: the idleness of the world of dancing seamen and stunning mermaids is nothing but an illusion. Implementing disarming aesthetic techniques with every frame balanced in shade and synchronized in style, the directors enhance the contrast of a perfect façade and a flawed interior.

Perhaps the most skillful and admirable quality of Hail, Caesar! is that while the movie is filled with endless references from history and politics, it can still be just as enjoyable were all these subtexts go unnoticed or missed. Eye-catching frames and astonishing performances, most appropriate cast and vibrant plot capture a viewer’s interest regardless of his or her desire or ability to examine and appreciate nuances and technicalities.

Isn’t this versatility what makes for a great movie? We think so.