HAIL, CAESAR! (2016), the latest film by writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen, is a remarkably unique piece of work, even for the brothers who have been making their own brand of remarkably unique pieces of work for over thirty years. It has been a fascinating and rewarding career to follow. Their first efforts in the 1980s gained a strong underground following; a devoted audience of hyper-literate cineasts and moviegoers with an appreciation for the intelligent and the offbeat. Impossible to pin down or predict, the pair concocted cinematic landscapes as varied as one can imagine right out of the gate, from their suspenseful Neo-Noir debut BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) to its follow-up RAISING ARIZONA (1987), something like a trailer-park screwball comedy on acid. And things didn’t get any less bizarre from there. After the meticulous mobster masterpiece MILLER’S CROSSING (1990), the following year saw the release of BARTON FINK, an especially audacious and utterly unclassifiable hypnotic puzzle of obsession, madness, and the “life of the mind” dressed up as a story about a blocked writer trying to stay true to his principles. Incredibly, this perplexing picture swept the top three awards at the 1991 Cannes film festival (Best Director, Best Actor, and the Palme d’Or). The Coens were now officially a phenomenon, with legendary director Robert Altman taking notice and parodying them in his vicious skewering of the new Hollywood, THE PLAYER (1992). A mainstream breakthrough seemed inevitable.
That breakthrough came with FARGO (1996), still perhaps the most accessible example of what the Coens do best. Ostensibly a story about a kidnapping scheme gone awry, FARGO morphs into a pointed study of American lawlessness, apathy and ennui, with the amazing Frances McDormand providing an essential element of light and optimism amidst all the darkness and chaos. With its quirky characters, distinctive dialogue, ironic detachment, and simple yet inventive visual style, FARGO put all the Coens’ strengths in the service of a film that was not only satisfying aesthetically, but also seemed poignant and important, capturing something relevant of the American experience on a grand scale, rather than just illuminating some strange shadowy corner of it as their previous films had done.
True to form, the brothers continued their patternless methodology after FARGO, marching to their own drummer and creating works as singular and seemingly ridiculous as a hardboiled Film Noir send-up with a disinterested, burnt-out hippie as its protagonist (THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998) and a retelling of The Odyssey set in early 20th century rural America, with bluegrass music (O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, 2000). In the new century, their films have grown much darker, even without considering their award-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). Toning down, if not completely eschewing, the entertaining supporting parts that characterized much of their early work, the 21st century Coens have focused more on the streamlined stories and spiritual crises of their morally ambiguous and less than sympathetic main characters (THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, 2001, A SERIOUS MAN, 2009). Even the laughter seemed more tinged with darkness and sadness (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, 2003, BURN AFTER READING, 2008), a disquieting development to be sure.
The pinnacle of this new paradigm came in 2013 with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, possibly the most fulfilling character study in the Coens’ oeuvre, of a struggling folk musician in 1960s New York City, and also their bleakest film. Thus it was something of a surprise when ads for HAIL, CAESAR! displayed a diverse cast and appeared to be a heralding a return to the wackiness of old. Always presenting a particular problem from a marketing standpoint, the Coen brothers’ movies almost never fit neatly into any one category, instead mashing genres together or twisting them completely out of recognition. More accurately, their work frequently has absolutely no precedent; one quite literally has to take it on its own terms, and more than one viewing can be necessary to find the right wavelength. That said, it seems the marketing campaign for HAIL, CAESAR! was a serious miscalculation.
Regardless, the film is nothing less than a masterpiece, the perfect synthesis of the Coens’ “new” style and their “old” one. It is the first of their films in many years in which that wonderful unique cinematic universe of theirs radiates from every frame, as full of original and memorable characters as anything out of Fellini. Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” for a Hollywood studio in the early 1950s, taking care of all manner of unorthodox problems that arise in the course of a production, and his rock solid presence anchors the movie despite many digressions. Around his grim countenance swirls a collection of kooks and crazies like a swarm of mosquitoes surrounding an enormous tree: actors, technicians, writers and others who need his help, along with a motley collection of intruders seeking to distract him for their own purposes. And though some of these characters are followed for a bit while others are discarded quickly, it is Brolin’s film beginning to end, his spiritual crisis revolving around his chosen career in pictures and playing out in that gaudy, ridiculous, but ultimately lovable, worthwhile and maybe even noble realm.
Told entirely in the span of a single day in Mannix’s hectic working life, HAIL, CAESAR! recalls not only the filmmakers’ exuberant early work, but also past classics that address former eras of the movie business with and abundance of wit and panache, most obviously SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). A summation of everything Joel and Ethan Coen have done and learned as filmmakers, it is a gorgeous love letter to the medium at a particular time in its history, a time when the young Coens perhaps first came under its unholy spell and adopted it as their own system of spirituality, a time rich with beauty, madness, style, secrets, and absurd contradictions, all of which are on display here.