Hail, Caesar! (2016)

As with every film from The Coen Brothers from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and onward, the more I think about their work, the more I cannot wait to rewatch their movies. I walked out of NO COUNTRY, thought it was fine and really disliked the final fifteen minutes or so ("It's beer time" was always the turning point for me). Walked out of BURN AFTER READING, didn't think it was anything special outside of some big laughs and wacky interactions. Thought A SERIOUS MAN was revisiting the themes of BARTON FINK, until I rewatched it a couple more times. And so on, so forth. The only one I immediately loved was INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, since I thought it was a truly dark exercise into a man too grief-stricken to really get outside of his own head to where it renders him completely self-absorbed. I'm still grief-stricken by loss each and every day, and any film that dives into that mentality expressed through music no less, hits right at home. (Oh man, those extras on the Criterion Blu-Ray are wonderful to boot).

Walking out of HAIL, CAESAR, I was immediately struck with a similar feeling of most of the latter-day Coen Brothers movies. Great in spots, puzzling in others, not sure what to make of it as a whole. To some degree, I do think they're going through the motions but these motions I enjoy revisiting since they dabble in existentialist absurdity. I imagine someone could teach an entire course on the philosophy of the Coen Brothers. A SERIOUS MAN, in particular, is so incredibly (yet discreetly) layered that its portrayal of emptiness and agnosticism somehow becomes life-affirming in a surreal way. It reminded me of when I toyed and abided by the themes of THE INVENTION OF LYING for awhile, but ultimately I embrace the uncertainty of A SERIOUS MAN regarding the randomness of cancer and tornadoes, and maybe maybe maybe it could or could not be the will of a higher power. Here with HAIL CAESAR, Eddie Mannex struggles with faith all while questioning his career choice. The contrast between the need for better hours and stability with Lockheed is weighing heavily, but he's too good of a studio "fixer" to imagine him being anything else. I can't lie, I know that feeling of uncertainty when it comes to career choices and what it really means in the grand scheme of things. However, the one thing I wrestle with here, is the unfortunate lack of screen time for some potentially interesting characters. Not to say that I wanted to see more of Jonah Hill or Scarlett Johannsen or even Channing Tatum to some degree, but I think preconceived notions regarding the poster, the advertisements and to some degree, the setup, had me thinking it was going to be a collaborative ensemble but several great actors are relegated to two scenes and little screen time. Probably because Alden Ehrenreich was meant to steal the show, and that ultimately became fine by me.

The Coen Brothers love a good kidnapping plot and a briefcase full of money. HAIL CAESAR finds them in a comfort zone all while paying homage to vintage Hollywood. There's a prevailing question about the emptiness of creating art vs. capitalism. Back in those days, it was mostly about artifice and maintaining an image. There's the idea of clashing systems. There's the idea of Mannex having to essentially take on the burden of all the sinning actors and directors to where he looks up at a cross at one point, and well, you can kinda see where the lines blur. Maybe it's a mish-mash, or maybe there's more to it. Part of me thinks a lot of this is obvious, part of me needs to see this movie again to fully process the experience now that I know what I'm in for. I will say that The Coen Brothers continue to astonish me after NO COUNTRY in ways that fill me with such gratitude and enthusiasm for the craft of film-making. Maybe their stories get a little bit muddled, and they aren't as smooth as they were in FARGO, BARTON FINK, or MILLER'S CROSSING, but much like the work of PTA, I don't necessarily watch movies for consistent storytelling clarity. I watch them to be intellectually and emotionally stimulated. The Coens manage to play with my brain each and every time and there is a joy in that happening alone. I welcome that and damn near crave it.

I will say that HAIL CAESAR doesn't quite hit the high notes of A SERIOUS MAN, BURN AFTER READING or INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS for me, personally. But I'm glad it exists, and I will definitely watch it a second time as soon as possible to see if it goes up in my mind the way most of their films have as of late.  B

James Laczkowski