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Hail, Caesar! | Blu-ray Review

Hail, Caesar! Blu-ray CoverPremiering stateside just prior to opening the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival,Hail, Caesar! the Coen Bros. parody of studio era Hollywood, took home around sixty three million at the box office, with just half its proceeds earned at the domestic box office. Though this courted a wider audience than their previous release, Cannes darling Inside Llewyn Davis, it was much quieter fanfare than something like 2008’s Burn After Reading, which tonally (and cast wise) this compares to. Amusing, but not quite as acute a parody as one might expect from the distinctive duo, it will most likely be fondly remembered for a handful of particularly noteworthy scenes which don’t quite coalesce into anything cohesive.

A 1950s set allegory parallelizing movie studio heads with their supernatural equivalent—God. A rather stressful day unfolds on the backlot of Capitol Pictures, where a leading star currently set to film the final, important speech in a Biblical epic is kidnapped by a serene group of Communist writers. Meanwhile, the general cadre of hungry gossip columnists, disgruntled auteurs, and budding celebrities must be continuously juggled and groomed by the studio’s omnipotent figurehead. It’s an ideal environment for the duo, who seem to be consistently recapitulating earlier films and eras, like their rehash of True Grit (2010). There’s something about this latest effort which hints at the greatness of their 1991 title Barton Fink, but an increasing predilection for tangential flights of fancy also recalls the frenzied effort The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). At this point in their directorial careers, the brothers Coen have carte blanche in presenting their singular tastes, but this latest venture is .

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) runs a streamlined motion picture studio, Capitol Pictures. But the future of the industry has become precarious with the rise of television and Mannix has recently become disillusioned with his profession. A staunch Catholic, he’s been headhunted for a lucrative contract with the military just as the country faces the possibility of nuclear war. As his deadline for a decision looms, Mannix is forced to put out a major fire at work when lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped for ransom right before completing his final monologue for the studio’s most expensive production of the year, Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ. With twin gossip columnists breathing down his neck for a scoop (Tilda Swinton), Mannix must also contend with shaping his new matinee star (Alden Ehrenreich) into a likeable romantic lead and saving a starlet (Scarlet Johansson) from tabloid fodder.

Each of these personalities is a rough composite of an actual somebody from the era, just as Hail, Caesar! is clearly a riff on the glut of Biblical epics of the period, with studios queasily beginning to portray Christ in the flesh (previously a blasphemous act). Today’s topical issues concerning Hollywood’s whitewashing of these stories (Exodus and Gods of Egypt, in recent memory) was not the topic of conversation, as evidenced in one of the film’s best sequences where a group of religious leaders are consulted about the ‘accuracy’ of the studio’s endeavor. Josh Brolin is rather charming as Mannix, a composite of MGM VP Eddie Mannix and head of publicity, Howard Strickland. Slowly, Mannix begins to take on the aspects of a Christ-like figure, a sort of martyrdom considering his sacrifices are what allow his section of the industry to flourish.

As the bronzed, kidnapped star, Clooney takes on the presence of a Tyrone Power or perhaps Victor Mature a la Samson and Delilah (1949), but he’s probably the least enigmatic presence. Supporting players with less substantial screen time, such as Scarlett Johansson in another scuzzy bombshell turn (aping Loretta Young), Tilda Swinton as a pair of viper gossip columnists (a wicked ode to names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons), and Alden Ehrenreich as a James Dean-like budding matinee idol nab the film’s most comedic moments (including a marvelous exchange featuring Ralph Fiennes’s as closeted studio director, Laurence Laurentz).

Channing Tatum gets to be a Gene Kelly type in a playful tap dancing sequence, performing “No Dames,” a parody of thinly veiled homosexuality, rivaling the famed gymnasium sequence where Jane Russell is ignored by a bunch of gym rats in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953). Frances McDormand also gets her own memorable gag as a crusty editor.

But Hail, Caesar! loses a bit of steam by its closing act, leaving behind all the frantic wheelings and dealings of those circling the studio carrion to focus on the troubling business of capitalism vs. communism in pre-HUAC coded language, which only allows the Coen Bros to sidestep the messy reality the Hollywood studio era would eventually become. Clearly, this flippant meta-analysis is aping 1959 epic Ben-Hur (of note, the added subtitle of “A Tale of the Christ” was part of the 1925 version of this film), but by this time, the Commie scare wouldn’t be so easily dismissed as it is here. But if you can ignore its obliviousness, Hail, Caesar! is a rag tag homage to a bygone era of not only religious rhetoric in the studio, but a golden age of film. As far as escapist fare goes, it’s a pleasant offering, particularly for audiences tuned into its plentiful cinematic references. However, if the Coens are aligning cinema with religion, portraying celebrity worship as a byproduct of the reverence once reserved only for those three Christian entities in the clouds, then its only success is portraying it as empty an altar as any other.

Disc Review:

This high definition widescreen transfer arrives in 1.85:1, picture and sound quality intact (though this isn’t the most outstanding pairing of the Coen Bros. and DP Roger Deakins—but then again, it’s not really trying to be anything more than flippant homage to a bygone era). A handful of predictably appropriate extra features regarding the period in question are also included.

Directing Hollywood:
This four minute feature finds major cast members expressing their enthusiasm when invited to star in a Coen Bros. production.

An Era of Glamour:
Producer Robert Graf, along with production designer Jess Gonchor, costume designer Mary Zophres and select cast members discuss returning to the nostalgic studio era in self-referential Los Angeles in this six minute segment.

The Stars Align:
Major cast members and producers explain the thought process behind the making of the film in this eleven minute segment.

Magic of a Bygone Era:
Another six minute segment of cast and crew discusses how the film pays homage to a bygone era of studio pictures and processes (including Tatum discussing the difficulty of learning to tap dance).

Final Thoughts:

Featuring some impressive standouts from usual scene stealers (Swinton, Tatum, McDormand), Hail, Caesar!’s best asset ends up being the least seasoned cast member, Alden Ehrenrich as a film studio’s latest groomed commodity.

Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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