DirectorJoel and Ethan Coen
Release Date(s)2016 (June 7, 2016)
Studio(s)Working Title/Universal Pictures (Universal)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
A spiritual sequel to the Coen’s Barton Fink (1991), Hail, Caesar! tells the tale of the one good man left in Hollywood… who just so happens to be a studio executive. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of production at Capitol Pictures in the 1950s (yes, the same studio for which Barton toiled a few years earlier). Eddie isn’t what you’d call an honest man, but at least he has a conscience about it, attending Confession daily to atone for lying to a wife he knows is too good for him. Above all else, Eddie is a “fixer,” charged with keeping the bad behavior of his studio’s bullpen of actors out of the tabloids, among them leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s currently starring in the studio’s latest production, the grand and titular “Tale of the Christ.” That’s no easy task, however, dealing as he must with a rogue’s gallery of screwball studio employees and hangers-on, including a hard-nosed and unmarried pregnant leading lady (Scarlett Johansson), a naive but earnest singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich), a fussy European auteur director (Ralph Fiennes), and even a “study group” of long put upon writers turned Communists who, as Baird learns firsthand, make a convincing argument (they’re very good writers, after all). Why does Eddie put up with all this nonsense? Because the pictures have worth dammit! They’ve got distinction and panache, and the people depend on them for information and uplift! And anything that has worth to the pictures must have worth of its own.
Like most of the Coen Brothers’ films, Hail, Caesar! has laughs both obvious and subtle. But this is a classic example of their work, featuring as it does an unlikely central character cursed with a set of principles that tend to put him at odds with the oddballs around him. Brolin is in fine form as the film’s anchor and Clooney (who can sometimes go a bit over the top in these comedy roles) is used to just the right effect here. The film offers great send-ups of classic Hollywood tropes, including Esther Williams/Busby Berkeley water ballet (with Johansson), Gene Kelly dance numbers (with Channing Tatum), and even Gene Autry westerns (with Ehrenreich). Additional supporting players help keep things off-balance, including Tilda Swinton as feuding twin sister gossip columnists (inspired by the real-life Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons), Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking film editor, and the aforementioned writers, who tend to steal the show (“Finger sandwich?”). The best scene in the film features Eddie trying to win the “theological approval” of a panel of religious leaders, who can’t seem to agree on anything. Wrap all this up with Roger Deakins’ expert cinematography and another good Carter Burwell score (this one an homage to classic Hollywood film music), and you have yet another fine Coen movie casserole that’s certain to improve in the fridge overnight.
Universal’s Blu-ray delivers workman-like video and audio quality. The video is 1080p in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors are stylized, slightly muted and dialed toward a warm and faded Technicolor look, but remain accurate to the theatrical experience. Contrast is terrific, with deep blacks and plenty of detail in the image. Audio options include English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English Descriptive Audio, and French and Spanish 5.1 DTS, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The DTS-HD mix doesn’t exactly immerse the viewer in thunderous surround soundscapes and dynamic range, but then it doesn’t need to. Nevertheless, the film’s dialogue is clear at all times and the score sounds lovely indeed.
The only extras on the disc are a set of four behind-the-scenes featurettes that run about thirty minutes in all, including Directing Hollywood (4:11), The Stars Align (11:34), An Era of Glamour (6:22), and Magic of a Bygone Era (6:01). They’re good in a glossy EPK sort of way, but are nothing beyond ordinary. You also get a DVD copy of the film and a Digital Copy code in the packaging. One thing I would have loved to see here is a gallery of all the fake movie posters that are visible throughout the film in the background, but such is not the case. Maybe Criterion will get around to releasing a better special edition of this film one day.
There are two kinds of Coen Brothers films… the ones you know are great the moment you see them, and the ones you don’t. Hail, Caesar! is the latter. Those you really have to see once just to take everything in, because you never know what you’re going to get, then you have to see them again in order to better appreciate all the brilliant little moments and throwaway gags. Hail, Caesar! offers a lightweight story to be sure, but its performances are fun and the film is packed with tons of wonderful period touches and details. Even were it otherwise, the film would still be worth a look on the filmmakers’ merits alone. Recommended, but particularly for those with eclectic tastes.
- Bill Hunt