George Clooney kidnapped? Channing Tatum dancing in a sailor costume? Scarlett Johansson wearing a sparkly mermaid’s tale? Alden Ehrenreich as a socially awkward cowboy? Tilda Swinton as not one, but two columns journalist? And Ralph Fiennes as a slightly weird studio director?
It almost sounds too crazy to be true, while in fact, it pretty much sums up the plot premise of the Coen brother’s latest motion picture, “Hail, Caesar!”. Set in 1950’s Hollywood, a fixer called Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to face perhaps the biggest challenge of his career at the picture studios: bringing back the kidnapped film star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). As Mannix sets out on his mission, he encounters the studio’s biggest stars, such as the grumpy DeeAnne Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the awkward Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the hunky Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and the snobbish reporters Thora and Tassily Thacker (Tilde Swinton).
At first sight, “Hail, Caesar!” seems like a crazy, surreal and darkly funny comedy, with George Clooney walking around in a Roman warrior suit, while Scarlett Johansson screams: “Bring me my fish ass!” at a scrawny set assistant, and Channing Tatum flips his hair at the camera at least five times. But the Coen brothers want their audience to look behind the star-studded cast, the lavish costumes and the bigger-than-life design. “Hail, Caesar!” is on a mission of its own, to subtly and comically criticize our modern film industry.
In the film, Hollywood is pictured as a crazy, over-the-top and, most of all, fake world, with shallow actors, secret deals being made behind the scenes and arranged marriages being forged to manipulate the media. It feels crazy, too surreal to be true, but “Hail, Caesar!” seeks out to do, is to put a mirror between the Hollywood in the story, and the Hollywood we read about on a daily basis. It might seem crazy, but what if that is actually the world we live in? Do we really just care about how white our teeth are, or about what the tabloids are writing about that one actress, or about how much money we can earn?
Apart from the message “Hail, Caesar!” sets out to convey, the film is also just really entertaining. The star-studded cast is hilarious, as they are playing ridiculed versions of the type of characters they are usually cast in. Scarlett Johansson, usually cast as the pretty woman, is now a grumpy and scheming pretty woman, while Channing Tatum, who is (let’s be honest) always cast as the hunky, sexy dancing guy, is a now a hunky, sexy dancing guy who turns out to be a closet communist on a mission to bring down capitalism (one of favorite plot turns, by the way).
While “Hail, Caesar!” is a funny and clever way to criticize our current obsession with Hollywood, it does not fully succeed. The film definitely has its funny moments (Channing Tatum dramatically flipping his hair before taking a submarine to Russia to become a “soviet man”), it overdoes its ridiculousness, so much that is difficult to take the film seriously. Which, in the end, is what Joel and Ethan Coen subtly ask of their audience.