TAKE TWO: Re-Reviewing “Hail, Caesar!”

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As many do, I often look forward to giving specific films a second look. There are certain instances where a movie simply doesn’t click for me. It may be a movie that I originally approached with ridiculously high and unobtainable expectations. It may be from filmmakers with a track record for creating movies I truly love. Everything I just said fits perfectly with my first experience with “Hail, Caesar!”. But what a shift following a second look. For that reason I feel compelled to dust off the old review and offer up some pretty dramatic revisions.

I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

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Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

 Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.

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While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film centers itself around the various ins and outs of his studio management. The supporting cast is mostly seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos – Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. Fiennes is particularly great in channeling the same sharp comedic timing he showed in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. He may be the biggest highlight offering up some of the film’s biggest straight-faced laughs.

 The Coens throw out so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system of ‘Old Hollywood’. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We see scenes shooting on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly ominous head. All of these things are a ton of fun and are laced with the Coens signature off-beat humor.

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I think an argument can be made that this film lacks a satisfying narrative thread to bring together all of its quirky elements. Perhaps more focus on a central story would help. But the Coen brothers never restrict themselves to formulas and aren’t afraid to work with a ton of moving parts. “Hail, Caesar!” certainly has many moving parts. But unlike my first viewing which was clouded with irrationally high expectations, this time I was able to connect the dots and better define the Coens’ vision for the film.

“Hail, Caesar!” is very much an homage to classic moviemaking. It is a wacky missing person caper. It is a story of a man navigating personal and spiritual crises. It is all of those things plus some. If you try to view it through a linear lens you’ll probably come away disappointed. This time my expectations were tempered, my focus was broader, and my experience was profoundly better.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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26 thoughts on “TAKE TWO: Re-Reviewing “Hail, Caesar!”

  1. Loved this film for the wonderful attention to detail of the period, gag-rate, great musical numbers and eccentric characters. It doesn’t really add up to much in terms of depth of emotion but it’s a perfect cinematic soufflé; sweet and perfectly formed. Based on this performance Ehrenreich is destined for stardom.

    • It really is extremely well made – something you would expect from the Coens. But even as a broad comedy it has a lot more to say than I originally thought. I liked it after my first viewing but with reservations. I really, really like it after a second.

  2. That’s cool that you’ve re-reviewed it. There are a few films I’ve seen this year that I’m really keen to re-watch at some point for similar reasons – to see if my opinion changes or stays the same – Hail,Caesar!, The Neon Demon, High-Rise and The Assassin. Interestingly all four of those are visually impressive (albeit in different ways) and there seems to be quite a lot to take in on first viewing with each one. I think a couple of them do have noticable flaws, but are all the better for them (in a year when otherwise many of the big releases have seemed so safe, and calculated, and designed by committee).
    But anyway – in terms of Hail, Caesar! I liked a lot of the stuff you’ve mentioned above. And I think you’re right when you say that a comedy based around the golden era of Hollywood is so out of step with other modern comedies, which just seem to be brainless sub-par grossout flicks this year. Pretty sure that if I do re-watch this it will go up even further in my estimation, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get round to it. The Channing Tatum take-off of On The Town is one of my favourite scenes of the year, too.

    • In my original review I was focused on the lack of a stronger linear narrative as well as the glaringly false advertising found in the trailer. This time around the linear narrative wasn’t nearly the concern. I saw it more as a broad comedy – a smorgasbord of ideas, themes, homages, etc. that actually fit together a lot better than I remembered. As for the trailer, that objection is still valid although this time I concluded it to be unfair to so harshly criticize the film because of the trailer. It is misleading but on its own merits the movie is what it is and I really did appreciate it this time around.

      Give it a second watch if you get a chance. I know what you mean, it can be difficult fitting it in. I’m really glad I did.

      • I’m seeing a lot of trailers that are way off in terms of what the actual film is like. Though I can just imagine a studio’s marketing department trying to figure out how to sell this one or what it is they’re actually dealing with.

      • Exactly. The marketing team is trying to get butts in the seats. It can be really annoying, but I think I was a bit unfair penalizing the movie itself for that in my first review.

  3. I’m glad you turned around Keith. This has been one of my favorite movies of the year and it’s a terrific homage to Hollywood. Ehrenreich’s performance really stood out for me as the film’s greatest strength, I’m interested in what his portrayal of Han Solo’s going to be like in the new Star Wars prequel.

    • To be honest your post from a while back factored in as well. I remember it being among your favorites of the year so far. That was one of several reasons to revisit it. I’m so glad I did. Talk about a better understanding of what a movie is going for. And it also shows just how damaging ridiculously high, unreasonable expectations can be to a film.

  4. I watched it on the plane (I am reviewing it in the next couple days) and was happily surprised since, in its outing, everyone seemed to find it lackluster. I’m glad you liked it better a second time around. Gotta love the homage to Hollywood. The Ricky Nelson westerner (bad English) and Ralph Fiennes (snobby English) was hysterical. I thought it was wonderful with only a couple little snags. 4.5 seems a fitting score. Nice, Keith.

  5. I just saw this for the first time a few days ago and I thought it was so boring. I’m glad it worked for you! I wish I had liked it more.

    • I think it’s safe to say it appeals to a ….unique taste, not a better taste. It is the Coen brothers playing by their own rules and calling back to so many things from old Hollywood. I really went for it this time around.

  6. I went through the same deal with this one as you did, but I love it now too. It definitely seems more subtle than a lot of the Coens’ more acclaimed films. Most people (including me, the first time) don’t really appreciate that relationship between movie magic and the movie business that’s shown here. It isn’t a film that simply pays tribute to movies as an auteur-driven art form, which is a way that a lot of cinephiles would prefer to see the industry.
    There’s a lot more to like about the film, and I think you’ve done a good job capturing it. Nice review, man.

    • Thank you. Simply put, I am so glad I revisited it. But it’s funny, I knew the moment I left the theater that I had to watch it again. You’re right, it’s a look at moviemaking has a couple of layers to it. They seem to be poking fun at their craft while at the same time fully admitting and showcasing the magic behind “making pictures”. And here’s something else, I still feel as if there were several things I missed. I can’t wait to see it again.

  7. Loved this film; hell, I love all Hollywood films about Hollywood, true or not. There’s something magical about making movies that can’t be washed away with any amount of cynicism, even knowing it’s a commercial enterprise engaging in artistic endeavour. Clooney is terrific, Tilda Swinton steals the show, and the new Han Solo proves he’s got the chops for poe-faced comedy down pat. Love it.

    • So good. And I loved Ralph Fiennes. He had me laughing out loud. The Coens are just so unique and refreshing. Always doing something new.

  8. Man, it’s so good to hear this. I’ve been meaning to revisit it myself. I was sorely disappointed on my first viewing too but always had a slight niggle that Coens surely couldn’t have delivered something so under-par. I’m hoping I have the same experience as you did when I finally tackle it again.

    • Man, it was like night and day. Well, maybe that is an over-exaggeration. I did LIKE it originally but had several issues with it. Like you, I adore the Coens and for some reason everything clicked for me during this viewing. Give it another look.

      • I certainly will check it out again. It feels too soon at the moment but I just can’t allow myself not to try again. The Big Lebowski never worked that well when I first saw and now it’s my all-time favourite film.

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