Why the hell would any sane person work in the film industry? This is the core question in HAIL, CAESAR!, a the day-in-the-life examination of the combination tenacity, talent, and madness it takes to be a successful Producer. It’s 1951. The Golden Era of film is coming to an end. The period showcases everything grand and absurd about the film business, and it’s in the balance of grandness and absurdity that the Coen brothers shine. Like much of their best work, the film is brilliantly precise and laugh-out-loud funny, with a nihilistic bite to the humor that makes you wish it didn’t feel so true.
Josh Brolin functions well as the surprisingly human and relatable Eddie Mannix, head of Production at Capitol Pictures. The laundry list of stars on display (George Clooney, Scarlett Johnasson, Channing Tatum) function as appropriately grand cameos. A checklist of unique problems for Mannix to solve. These stars manifest the Coens’ satiric vision of movie stardom, and they seem to be having a blast doing it. Tatum’s sequence in particular (“No Dames”) begs to be expanded into an entire Coen directed musical.
With the exception of a few CG “updates,” the film visually nails the aesthetic of Golden Era filmmaking. Roger Deakins and the Coens clearly made an effort to recreate the visual styles of Busby Berkley, Stanley Donen, William Wyler… with a little bit of Wes Anderson thrown in for good measure (because if you’re going to steal, steal from the best). It all adds a beautiful authenticity to the proceedings that elevate them beyond mere parody into the realm of tribute.
HAIL, CAESAR! renders unto us everything the film industry is, for better and for worse. It’s such a good representation of its era that it could be used in an introduction to film course. The Coens have made a name for themselves finding the meaninglessness in the meaningful, and while this isn’t their finest example, it still cuts deep for this student of film.