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Hail, Caesar! Movie Review

Hail, Caesar!: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
Hail, Caesar! is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD combo.

Hail, Caesar! (2016) movie poster Hail, Caesar!

Theatrical Release: February 5, 2016 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writers/Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker, Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Frances McDormand (C.C. Calhoun), Jonah Hill (Joe Silverman), Veronica Osorio (Carlotta Valdez), Heather Goldenhersh (Natalie the Secretary), Alison Pill (Mrs. Mannix), Max Baker (Head Communist Writer), Fisher Stevens (Communist Writer), Patrick Fischler (Communist Writer), Tom Musgrave (Communist Writer), David Krumholtz (Communist Writer), Greg Baldwin (Communist Writer), Patrick Carroll (Communist Writer), Fred Melamed (Communist Writer), John Bluthal (Professor Marcuse), Alex Karpovsky (Mr. Smitrovich), Aramazd Stepanian (Eastern Orthodox Clergyman), Allen Havey (Protestant Clergyman), Robert Pike Daniel (Catholic Clergyman), Robert Picardo (Rabbi), Clancy Brown (Gracchus), Wayne Knight (Lurking Extra), Jeff Lewis (Lurking Extra), Jack Huston (Cad in Cab), Agyness Deyn (Woman in Cab)

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After a couple of years of working on prestige screenplays for other filmmakers (Angelina Jolie's Unbroken and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies), Joel and Ethan Coen give us the return of the true Coen Brothers movie in Hail, Caesar!, their first directorial effort since 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis.
The timing seems strange; after becoming something of awards season fixtures, the siblings have their latest open in theaters at the beginning of February, while 2015's Oscar race is in its final stages and no one has even started to think about 2016's possibilities. It seems doubtful that anyone will remember Hail, Caesar! for major honors a year from now, but that doesn't matter because even as one of the Coens' lighter films, this is still the first movie of 2016 worth caring about.

Hail, Caesar! is a love letter to Old Hollywood, a world the Coens previously depicted in Barton Fink but clearly have a lot of knowledge and admiration for, even if it doesn't always show in their output. The film is set in the 1950s which gives the writers-directors license to recreate a number of American movie staples from the time: the Gene Kelly-type song-and-dance musical, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming films, and big Cecil B. DeMille religious epics.

Films in these genres and no doubt several others are in production at Capitol Pictures, a studio run by an unusual mogul: devoutly Catholic family man Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix takes to his church's confessional booth in the early morning hours to disclose to his priest such sins as sneaking a couple of cigarettes after telling his wife he quit.

In the foremost role of "Hail, Caesar!", Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the chief of Capitol Pictures.

Our greatest attention is given to the titular film, that DeMille-esque sword and sandal epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman nobleman who has a change of heart upon encountering Christ. Whitlock's prop drink is poisoned by a couple of extras (one of them played by -- your eyes do not deceive -- Wayne Knight) and he is kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters who alert him to the injustices of their industry and win his sympathy while demanding a $100,000 ransom for his safe return.

The star's disappearance right before he is to film his big climactic speech is just one item garnering Mannix's concern. There is also the case of twice-annulled bathing starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who is in the early stages of a marriageless pregnancy. The studio chief reaches out to his trusted allies to arrange for the caustic actress to adopt her own baby. In addition, we see hotshot young Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) go along with the studio's sudden planned image makeover, which sees him ditching horseback stunts and gunplay for fine suits and lavish soundstages. The only problem is Doyle can't act a lick, which upsets his effete new director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a Hollywood movie star kidnapped and ransomed by Communist screenwriters in the Coen Brothers comedy "Hail, Caesar!"

Meanwhile, Channing Tatum, in a bit of casting even more surprising than his recent turn for Tarantino, gets to channel his inner Gene Kelly as a sailor about to ship off but not before thinking about dames and raising a little bit of harmless hell in a saloon that wishes to close.

The spirited musical number is one of several instances where the Coens attempt and succeed at emulating popular forms of yesteryear cinema. The brothers also have fun with the notion of powerful gossip columnists with Tilda Swinton playing Hedda Hopper-like identical twin sisters who negotiate stories and access directly with Mannix himself.

Most of the Coens' movies delight critics and cineastes who appreciate their irregularity but divide the general public that probably would prefer a touch more conventionality. Hail, Caesar! will likely continue that tradition, though anyone with fondness for the latter portion of Hollywood's Golden Age should quite enjoy the filmmakers' fun depictions and recreations of it. The film is spirited, farcical, artful, and fun nearly all of the time. Some of the Communist cell bits come close to outstaying their welcome with their rhetoric-heavy exchanges and otherworldly plans. But, mostly the brothers remain on point, their sharp wit quick to amuse and easy to admire. A good example of this is an early scene in which Mannix invites a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a rabbi, and an Eastern Orthodox priest to convey their thoughts on the Caesar epic's screenplay, humorously prompting some religious debate. The topic of religion is never far from mind, as Baird's big monologue at the Crucifixion site at Calvary is tapped for a slow-burn laugh. More playful than provocative, these Coen brothers continue to apply their gifts and unconventional style to films that only they can make.

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Related Reviews:
Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen: The Big Lebowski Fargo Inside Llewyn Davis Blood Simple. A Serious Man No Country for Old Men True Grit
George Clooney: Tomorrowland The Ides of March The Descendants | Alden Ehrenreich: Beautiful Creatures
Josh Brolin: Gangster Squad Sicario Men in Black 3 Labor Day | Tilda Swinton: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Channing Tatum: 21 Jump Street Foxcatcher | Written by the Coen Brothers: Bridge of Spies Gambit
Hollywood: Trumbo My Week with Marilyn Argo Saving Mr. Banks The Rocketeer

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Reviewed February 5, 2016.

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