Review: Hail Caesar (2016)


Hail Caesar opens with a narrator (Micheal Gambon) who dramatically sets the scene for the story of Eddie Mannix, (Josh Brolin) who is a problem solver for the studio Capitol Pictures during the era of 1950s Hollywood. At first, the moment feels jarring however it is a crucial scene that illustrates the brilliance of Hail Caesar. The film is a delightful celebration of a lost era of moviemaking. At the same time, it also works as a lampooning of the tail end of the studio system.

The former is showcased in lavish sequences from the pictures that are made by Capitol Pictures. One particular standout set piece depicts an ambitiously spectacular aquatic performance which has actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanson) front and centre. Moran’s entrance plays like something out of a James Bond opening credits sequence. It is artful and purposeful in articulating the central theme of the film.

Hail Caesar is concerned with making us believe in extraordinary things through the power of the cinema. In one way this applies to the title film which is about a Roman centurion who comes to believe in the power of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it also refers to the previously stated scene with DeeAnna Moran. The performance makes us believe that the actress is a portrait of captivating innocence, which is an image that is instantly shattered when she begins talking with Eddie Mannix about her problems.

In the scenes with Mannix, she is a shrew, irresponsible and the complete anthesis of her perceived starlet image through the course of that marine performance. In an amusing sub-plot, Mannix tries to cover up the actress’ surprise pregnancy by getting her to adopt her future child.

The film takes on a strange new life when ordinary moments outside of the pictures at Capitol Pictures feel like idealised movie moments that make the audience believe in wondrous things. For example, there is a single scene where Hobie Doyle, who is played with touching sincerity, by Alden Ehrenreich starts doing tricks with a rope while waiting for his date.

On its own the moment is absurd. However, it truly evokes the primary theme in a compelling manner. Joel and Ethan Cohen reinforce idealisation of the movies into moments that are meant to feel mundane and unnecessary. It’s as though the audience always want to believe that Hobie Doyle has that same persona of a naive, innocent cowboy who can impress with his charm and tricks.

At the same time, the film mocks the studio system in one of its central plot points. One of Capitol Pictures’ main players who is the leading star of the title film gets kidnapped by an organisation called The Future. They are a communist congregation who believe in the equal rights of writers in the filmmaking process. The scenes between the various people in the assembly and Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) are some of the funniest scenes in the picture.

This is because of the counter-intuitive nature of the scenes. Instead of being a horrible and terrifying set of people, the Future are portrayed as reasonable, amusing and learned as they debate the implications of their kidnapping to Whitlock. Additionally, they express the excessiveness, egotism and sheer lack of artistic merit of the studio, which contrasts well with the visual showcasing of the pictures made at Capitol Pictures.

Clooney plays Whitlock like someone who constantly needs a script to keep going otherwise he loses all semblance of thought and speech, which culminates in the funniest scene in the picture. Whitlock returns to the studio and explains in great detail to Mannix about the Future’s communist belief system which includes pointing out the inherent greed of the studio.

Clooney’s matter of fact wonderment contrasts very well with Brolin’s pent up rage, which results in a sequence that epitomises the importance of movie stars. Finally, the scene embodies the primary thematic fixation about belief in the power of the movies as Mannix slaps around Whitlock and reminds him that he is an actor that has to make people believe in the power of faith in his dramatic final scene in Hail Caesar.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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