The Coen Brothers’ lyrical homage to Classic Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! hits Blu-ray next week. A more optimistic companion piece to the darker, seamier Hollywood of Barton Fink, Hail, Caesar! succeeds more than it fails, delivering an enjoyable and diverting, if somewhat unfocused, paean to a bygone world.
Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures and a Hollywood fixer who manages everything behind the scenes of a Hollywood dream factory. We follow Eddie as he juggles recalcitrant directors, pregnant starlets, Communist writers and invasive gossip columnists, all while trying to hold onto his love of Hollywood in the midst of a growing studio crisis.
At the center of the loose narrative is the disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), leading man and star of Capitol’s latest prestige picture Hail, Caesar!, a thinly veiled Biblical epic that references Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and The Robe, in very short order.
Hail, Caesar! makes excellent use of its multi-talented cast, which includes all-too-brief appearances from Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, and Channing Tatum, among many others. The film meanders from one set to the next, delighting in production numbers and inter-textual references, and permeated by an epic voiceover.
Individual scenes pop with energy and even the occasional rumination on the nature of moviemaking and what role the movies play in American life and faith. But despite some occasional nods to a deeper political and philosophical context, Hail, Caesar! never quite manages the depth that one expects from the Coens. It’s an enjoyable film, and one that would delight anyone versed in this period of Hollywood, but it’s also difficult to follow and contains only the loosest of plot arcs to keep the story moving. Still, the Coens direct it all with such exuberance, and such love, that it’s difficult not to go along for the ride.
The Blu-ray release’s 1080p HD is a must for this film, not least because it means that the occasionally garish Technicolor images leap off the screen. The Coens constructed many scenes to directly parallel Hollywood films of the early 50s, and watching those scenes with an enhanced color palette does make all the difference. Without those colors and sharp, clean images, you can’t properly experience the beauty of Scarlett Johansson doing her Esther Williams impression, or George Clooney posturing in Roman garb.
Unfortunately for the Hail, Caesar! Blu-ray, the special features are very thin on the ground. Featurettes are mostly short, behind-the-scenes advertisements for the film itself. Directing Hollywood touches on the brilliance of the Coen Brothers according to the stars of Hail, Caesar!, while The Stars Align does pretty much the same thing about the stars of the show. Slightly more interesting is An Era of Glamour, which looks at the production design and the massive undertaking necessary to recreate the Golden Era of the period. Magic of a Bygone Era specifically focuses on two of the film’s major set pieces: Channing Tatum’s impressive tap-dancing sequence, and Scarlett Johansson’s underwater Esther William number.
While it’s enjoyable to get a bit of a glimpse into these sequences, I did wish for the presence of the Coen Brothers to actually discuss their film. Where’s the directors’ commentary? Where’s the in-depth look at the multitude of Classic Hollywood references integrated throughout the film? There’s a missed opportunity here to make the case for the importance of Hail, Caesar!.
At the end of the day, Hail, Caesar! will probably not go down in history as the finest film the Coen Brothers ever made, but it’s not really intended to be. It’s intended to be a fast, fun, loving tribute to a bygone era, an era that is beautiful and corrupt, cynical and curiously optimistic. Like the great films of the 1950s, it succeeds in what it sets out to be.
Hail, Caesar! is a frothy and exuberant, if slightly uneven, homage to the Golden Era of Hollywood, and this Blu-ray release does more than justice to its gorgeous colors and striking images.