Slower and weirder than it seemed from the trailer, which sets up a madcap comedy.
Katy was disappointed.
Mid-1950’s Hollywood: Josh Brolin is a hard-working studio employee who keeps the stars in line and keeps the press (Tilda Swinton) away from the more damaging stories. Period epic star George Clooney is kidnapped by commies, is curious and agreeable, doesn’t seem to realize he’s being held hostage until rescued by cowboy actor Alden Ehrenreich. Those two and Brolin are great, but they’ve got nothing on Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor who’s secretly the commie group’s leader. Ralph Fiennes plays a frustrated director, and we get quite small roles for McDormand, Johansson and Jonah Hill, and reeeeally small roles for Alex Karpovsky and Dolph Lundgren.
On the flipside is a cell of communist screenwriters who abduct mega star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to bleed the studios, only to let slip that their ideals of upending the means of production stem from bitterness over not getting the back-end points they think they deserve. In perhaps the only subtle joke in the entire film, the warped prosperity politics that Hollywood communists bring to the cause is tacitly positioned as a precursor to Scientology, another faddish, extreme cause that the Hollywood faithful would frame in terms of making more bank.
The movie makes light of the dialectic as explained to Baird by Marcuse, but it also, in its tricky way, continually invites/compels the viewer to use it. Eddie Mannix is a good man who is very good at his job — but his job seems to be manufacturing schlock. People enjoy schlock, but schlock is arguably an agent of The People’s oppression, so… anyway, one needn’t go on. Suffice it to say that in the cosmology of the delightful Hail Caesar!, regardless of the conclusions to which dialectical thinking may lead, acceptance is the key, and Hollywood, while “problematic,” is more a force for good than the military-industrial complex can ever hope to be. And, finally, doing the right thing is an instinct shared by both company men and singing cowboys, for whatever that’s worth.
F. Cardamenis says the movie “reveals a striking ambivalence about [Hollywood], finding magic in its products but malice in its motives.”
D. Ehrlich’s article in Slate was my favorite, even if I did a sorry job condensing its points below:
[Hail Caesar and The Grand Budapest Hotel] shift through several different aspect ratios and feature Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and — wait for it! — Fisher Stevens. Both films bake their darker underpinnings beneath a frivolous screwball glaze. More crucially, both films probe the ultimate value of storytelling, and leverage their findings into lucid summations of their creators’ entire career and creative worldview. Hail, Caesar! takes one of the diverse back catalogs in American cinema and forces its various components into a reluctant conversation that changes them all, like strangers who are forced into small talk at a cocktail party only to realize that they have the whole world in common.
[the sailor musical sequence] convincingly argues the value of filmmaking to a universe of indelible characters who are struggling to understand it for themselves. It’s a truth they could see if only they had faith. And that, ultimately, is what Hail, Caesar! argues with greater clarity — if not always greater force — than any of the Coens’ previous films. There is no meaning but that which we convince ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you adhere to communism, religion, or movies: The only way you can believe in yourself is if you believe in something bigger. Who wouldn’t want to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest hotel, sir? It’s an institution.