Hail, Caesar! is a 1950s set classic Hollywood comedy from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. As such, it features the Coen brothers' trademark offbeat humour and a winning A-list cast led by Josh Brolin starring as studio fixer Eddie Mannix and George Clooney as kidnapped movie star Baird Whitlock.
The Coens continue to explore familiar themes of daily work, dumb criminals, crises of faith, and the futility of life in a much brighter setting aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Added in the mix are references to the capitalist structure of the entertainment industry and the intellectual justification of Marxist ideals. All of this is wrapped into a loose kidnap and ransom plot moving in and out of a physical studio location to peer into the kind of studio genre films Hollywood use to make.
Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich steals the film as a dim-witted actor in over his head wrapped into various studio happenings around him. Ralph Fiennes brings some class and comic reverence as a temperamental director while Scarlett Johansson appears in a fun turn as problematic actress. Tilda Swinton adds a nice screwball factor playing duelling Hollywood gossip columnist and identical twin sisters. Channing Tatum is frighteningly good as another actor whose extended sailor tap dance and musical number (called "No Dames") goes beyond the usual parameters of homoerotic sensibilities.
While relatively light in tone but dark in its deeper subject matter, Hail Caesar! uses a star-studded cast mostly in cameos and single scene roles to unravel the contrivances and glamour of motion pictures while simultaneously extolling their redemptive power. It's a film almost uninterested in its own plot as scenes and performances move in and out of screen purposely without much of any narrative cohesiveness to come together in a bigger picture on how we view entertainment as not just art but commodities and agents of capitalism.
Hail, Caesar! is a twisted cinematic appreciation of Hollywood history in true Coens fashion featuring a blend of elements from throughout their filmography. While it takes place in a familiarly mainstream time and setting, it's just as weird and strange as their more acerbic work. It's just as fulfilling and frustrating to watch as any of their works as it begs to be re-watched and interpreted through multiple viewings in order to truly dissect the material behind any entertainment.
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