Coming like an bourbon-tinged palate cleanser from the Oscar season glut and the Star Wars-led spectacle of the holidays, Hail, Caesar! feels like the true start to the cinematic year after a typically grim January. Playing with old Hollywood tropes and satirizing the former studio system, the film is as much of a delight as it is confounding. What should be tricky for mainstream audiences expecting a star-filled madcap romp to fully embrace will still be met warmly by those ready for something just left of center after the end-of-the-year gloss.
In Caesar!, it feels as if the Coen Brothers are playing with more ambivalence than their famously fatalistic instincts. Things don’t come to a natural conclusion or result from the bad choices of idiots, as the Coens are prone to display, perhaps because there isn’t much happening at all. There isn’t much narrative thrust to make the Coens’ ideas lift off of the ground, even as they’re drawing from their common thematic toolbox of religion, misguided mores, and our impending doom. Luckily, the farce in between is more delicious and uproarious than anything we’ve seen from the duo in ages.
The Coens’ have used their absurd wit in recent films to pepper more serious procedings, but here they’re returning to funny form. Their last all-out comedy, Burn After Reading (somehow almost a decade old!) is probably the best comparison for Caesar! and its meandering silliness in their filmography. The film dips dangerously close to sketch comedy as we weave between different film sets that all provide different giggles, but never move the thematic dial. Usually skilled at making divergent scenes drive the same thesis, Caesar! shows them not really having much of a statement at all beyond that of its individual scenes.
Overall, the film is an uncharacteristically vague on thematic intention from the filmmaking duo, despite all of the comedic precision and immaculate craft. The communist, celebrity-kidnapping group The Future angles to infiltrate the industry, as the future descends upon Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix as modern American capitalistic militarization promises a better tomorrow outside of the fading cinerama of the studio system. These heavy metaphors never develop outside of these two plot points, and even then fall on the thin side. They’re admirably reaching, but they never quite grab the thing.
More fascinatingly elusive and evocative is the film’s inexact place in cinematic time: it could be somewhere before, after, or during McCarthyism, but probably all of them. From anachronistic design elements to the era of film depicted, the Coens are able to portray a world that has somehow always been and inevitably will be by showing a world somehow flung out of time.
Any disjointedness is also glossed over by the diversely hilarious ensemble. Marketed on the shoulders of big names that are little more than extended cameos in the film (Jonah Hill feels more featured in the trailer than the actual film, if you can believe it), there are bit players given as much room to play as the stars. A crew of nameless Communist Writers and an almost wordless Wayne Knight have more screentime than Scarlett Johansson but delight just as much. At the forefront are George Clooney as the kidnapped megastar and Josh Brolin as the studio fixer set to retrieve him without notice from the gossip stirring sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (an underserved Tilda Swinton). One had hoped for Josh Brolin to finally receive his own starring vehicle, but alas his Eddie Mannix here is mostly in deference to the silliness surrounding him.
The highest comic heights are met by Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich in a scene to rival the Coens’ peak funniest. Fiennes is every stuffy, over-verbose cliche you have ever seen him play but all at once, and after this he hopefully becomes a Coens mainstage player. Ehrenreich runs away with the movie, given the most range to work with both as a broadly drawn old-Hollywood type and as his own motivated character. The comic dexterity and unexpected charm he brings to the film shows a potential major talent much in the way the Coens ushered in Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.
Hail, Caesar! is at its best when it’s a pure gas, which is fortunately often. Though it may not satisfy beyond laughter, Caesar! does prove to be a welcome antidote to the January doldrums and a proper kick off to the cinematic year.