People who go to Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie Hail, Caesar! hoping for the broad comedy suggested by the trailers for it will be disappointed: I laughed out loud only once, and the others in the audience didn’t do much audible chortling either. And people who go to it hoping for an acidulous anti-Hollywood satire like the Coens’ 1991 film Barton Fink will be equally disappointed: This new film is so affectionate toward the Old Hollywood that it feels almost like an act of reparation for having made that earlier one. (A good subtitle for the difference between the two would be “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Studio System.”)
But if you don’t go into the film with either of those specific expectations, you might enjoy it every bit as much as I did – because it is a very beautiful piece of work indeed. It is a gorgeously photographed recreation of early 1950s Hollywood that includes loving pastiches of several film genres from that era. (If you are fan of Hollywood films of that period, this is definitely a movie for you.) Josh Brolin plays a studio “fixer” who gets stars out of public-relations and other messes — picture him as the Fred Ward character from Robert Altman’s scorching 1992 masterpiece The Player, only this time the fixer is the good guy. George Clooney plays the movie star (of a Biblical epic being made on Brolin’s lot) who is kidnapped by radicals; he demonstrates yet again his Jimmy Stewart–style likeableness as he makes a rather gullible character charming and sympathetic. (I don’t want to give away any surprises, but conservatives who dislike Clooney for his liberal politics will stand up and cheer at some of the stuff his character undergoes in this film.) And Tilda Swinton does a great job playing two different characters – sisters who are competing Hedda Hopper–style gossip columnists.
The central word in the film’s script is “faith.” There is some very positive depiction of religion in it (as well as some barbs aimed at the foibles of clergymen). And the entire work is dedicated to the idea that making movies – even mass-market Hollywood movies – is something worth doing: It’s a reassertion of faith in art, even when the art being produced does not view itself as Art with a capital A.
I saw this movie at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and I think many people in the audience were expecting something harder-edged. That’s not what this was, so I heard some disappointment as folks were leaving (in addition to some applause). But what this movie did, it did well. I recommend it. (And I also recommend that, when movie lovers visit L.A., they visit the Cinerama Dome; it’s a lovely venue. It’s not as grandly baroque as Grauman’s TCL Chinese, which is about a half hour’s walk away; but it’s a great place to see a movie.)