One of the great things about the filmmaking duo of Joel and Ethan Coen (aka the Coen brothers) is that you always know when you're watching one of their films. That's not true of many filmmakers, and for those few whose works fits that description, it can eventually become more of a criticism, serving as evidence of a lack of growth. But the Coen brothers -- who co-write, co-produce, co-direct, and co-edit all their films -- weave their sensibilities, humor, and love for tweaking genres through every scene of every film they make. And even as they repeat themes -- crimes spiraling out of control, would-be crooks getting in over their heads, unstoppable killers -- they manage to do it in a way that feels fresh yet familiar.
The Coens' latest film Hail, Caesar! has the brothers returning to some of their favorite territory: kidnappings, old Hollywood, and the screwball comedy. And, as usual, it's a Coen brothers film through and through. Watch the trailer for Hail, Caesar! below.
Hail, Caesar! takes place in the 1950s and follows Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Studios who also acts as Capitol's "fixer", responsible for putting out fires, managing gossip, and handling the studio's stable of stars. But he's confronted with perhaps his biggest challenge when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Hollywood's biggest names and the star of Capitol's upcoming prestige film Hail, Caesar!, is kidnapped in the final days of shooting and held for a $100,000 ransom by a group calling themselves the Future.
It's up to Mannix -- with some help from up-and-coming hayseed western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) -- to find Whitlock while keeping his disappearance out of the tabloids. Hail, Caesar! also includes a cavalcade of big-name but relatively short-lived appearances by Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.
As I said of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers' work is so singular that their films can only really be judged against each other. In that respect, Hail, Caesar! doesn't rank among Coen classics like Fargo, the Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, Raising Arizona, or Barton Fink. In fact, none of the Coens' previous screwball efforts (like Intolerable Cruelty or the Ladykillers) have managed to find a larger audience. However, the Coens aren't filmmakers who ever courted the mainstream -- the mainstream, over time, came to them. And when you look at any list of their best films, it's almost mind-boggling how different those films are in style and tone while still retaining that Coen DNA.
When I see a Coen brothers movie, it's not to see if they can replicate their old hits, especially since so many of them share so many similar elements anyway. When I watch a Coen movie, it's for a chance to visit the kinds of worlds only the Coens seem to create, full of their humor, affections, and obsessions. Worlds so complete that it feels as if any character, no matter how small their role, has a complete story that could be a movie on its own.
In the case of Hail, Caesar! that world is Hollywood in its golden age, with cinematography by Roger Deakins that looks as if the camera lenses have been dipped in honey. The performances, dialects, and premise seem transported from a classic screwball film. Yet the subjects -- which includes the inner workings of the studio system -- are things that a film from that era would never address. It's the kind of genre tweaking the Coens do like no other filmmakers.
And, as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, we have a hero doing their best to battle or ignore their own cynicism and doubts to solve a mystery and hopefully make their small corner of the world a better place. Rarely do we ever think of studio heads as forces for good, but it's hard to watch Hail, Caesar! without being touched by the Coens' infectious love for movies and moviemaking with all its craziness, odd personalities, grandeur, creativity, spectacle, politicking, and rare but exalted moments of true transcendence.
Hail, Caesar! is Hollywood as the dream factory, and it's people like Mannix who must protect it and keep it running. After all, what would life be like without our cinematic dreams, even if they "only" put a smile on our faces for roughly 100 minutes before fading from memory?