The Coens’ brother’s Hail Caesar! is more than just a love letter to classic Hollywood; it’s an examination of American ideals during a pivotal moment in history—a post WWII America whose citizens collectively sought an ideal to believe in but also one to fight in. Hail Caesar! frames these ideals as American patriotism, religion, communism, and of course, cinema. To that extent Hail Caesar! is a bit grand. The film brings in an all-star ensemble of actors playing characters that can only be defined by their Coen-quirks, and it is these characters that bring their ideology of what America should be to the table.
There’s an important element that’s lost in the discussion however, and that’s depth. In presenting a wide array of beliefs across an even bigger cast, the Hail Caesar! finds itself zipping across characters, and thus never takes the time for a proper breather. Of course, in classic Coens’ fashion, the screenplay is endowed with wit and charm, yet here, the comedy seems as an excuse to dismiss characters with sarcasm or irony rather than engage them sincerely.
Hail Caesar! takes place in 1951 and follows Eddie Manix (Josh Brolin), the head of Capitol Pictures as well as its “fixer.” In short, it is Eddie’s job to keep the production of Captiol Pictures’ films running smoothly, whether that means helping an actress fake an adoption so as to avoid the scandal of a father-less child or paying off the police in order to rescue a drunk actress. Things go awry for Capitol Pictures when the star of their major production is kidnapped, leaving them out in the cold for money. Consequently, Eddie hires Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an actor of the production company, to track down their missing star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).
For those with knowledge of classic Hollywood actors, the homages littered throughout the film will be a delight. The Coens’ bring the past back to life in the form of characters that recall figures such as Esther Williams, Robert Taylor, and most obviously, Eddie Manix himself. The acting by these historical figures’ modern-counterparts is perfect to the comedic tee. The Coens’ take their time working their way through Capitol Pictures’ filming lots and along the way we witness the great fumbles of esteemed legends.
So too are we made privy to the cinematic wonders of the classic genre film. The Coens’ prove that they know their way around filming musicals, especially. The same problem of indifference still remains however. While the Coens’ present musical scenes with gusto and flare, dramas are made out to be cumbersome and artificial. The Communists believe that all of Hollywood is detrimental towards culture while Manix believes that at Capitol, they are giving the people what they want: entertainment. The overall message of the film is lost. Arguments are presented but never thought out, explored, and taken to their theoretical conclusions. Is the musical genre free from criticism that can only be applied to the drama? Despite the Communists being written in a comedic light that demeans them, to an extent are they right? The Coen’s go a further step and even include Herbert Marcuse as one of their characters but here, Marcuse is relegated to the role of a straight man in the world filled with whackos, and so he’s never taken or presented seriously.
For those curious, Herbert Marcuse was a member of the Frankfurt School, which sought to marry the works of Freud and Marx. Perhaps the most famous member of the Frankfurt School is Walter Benjamin, whose essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is frequently taught in film classes. Marcuse himself wrote a book titled The Aesthetic Dimension in which he discusses the role of art in society. I highly recommend it as it is not only a rather short read but greatly valuable as a supplement for any student of the arts. Perhaps even more so for the audience of this film as it will be helpful in understanding why Marcuse is even in the film.
Ultimately, Hail Caesar! then, is a time-capsule of sorts; in that time-capsule, the Coens have done a magnificent job in choosing what materials are placed within, and the result is a film that’s well-crafted but ultimately lacks any heart. With Hail Caesar! the Coens wear their influences on their entire bodies but what’s missing is their own interpretation into the mix. As Hail Caesar! goes on, we stop wondering why the audience of 1950’s America went to watch films in the first place and start wondering why we’re watching this particular one. That’s not a slight at Hail Caesar!; for one, it’s not a bad movie but it never just takes the extra step to ponder about its own modern existence, and that leaves something to be wanted.