Not many filmmakers have such extensive and consistent bodies of work to induce feelings of trepidation and anticipation within me each time I go see one of their new films. Sure, I love Rian Johnson, and I’m excited to see what he does in Episode 8 of Star Wars (especially after the smart way he tackled sci-fi in Looper), but that’s based on his 3 movies. I love all of them, but it’s 3 movies – I wouldn’t refer to him as “one of the greatest filmmakers of all time” – not yet, at any rate. If I was asked if there were any filmmakers working today that would fit into that category, I might come up with more than one answer, but for the first names I wouldn’t even have to pause – Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen Brothers released their first film, Blood Simple, in 1984. Their newest film, Hail, Caesar!, was just released in 2016 – 32 years making films, and nary a clunker among their work. Since the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2000, I have seen each of their films in the theater and each time I have those feelings of trepidation and anticipation. Will this be as good as their past work? Is this finally when they are so far up their own asses that they put out some inane pretentious junk that is largely unwatchable? Like many others, I had fallen completely in love with The Big Lebowski, and still revere it as an American comic masterpiece. Since then, in my opinion, they’ve released films that are better than Lebowski and some not as good; They’ve all, however, been at least good films. I went to see Hail, Caesar! wondering where it’d fall on the spectrum of their work, and as always they didn’t disappoint – it was simply delightful.
I suppose it should be noted that I am a student of cinema and its history, and this film is a love letter to old Hollywood. This might be part of the reason that I found just about every scene in the film amusing and great in their own way, but I truly feel that anyone who is simply a fan of cinema – be it of yesteryear or only of the modern – will find a lot to love here. The story seems fairly straightforward – a Hollywood studio “fixer” finds out the studio’s biggest star has been kidnapped and he has to find him while fixing problems with other productions on the studio lot, fixing what gossip columnists want to write about the stars, fixing unplanned pregnancy (through means of adoption), and fixing which position his son plays in little league.
Of course, nothing is ever simple for the fixer, played by Josh Brolin. The big star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by a shadowy group calling themselves “The Future,” who turn out to be Communists. And writers. All the writers are Communists, and if you like to play “Oh, where do I know that guy from?” when you’re watching a movie, the scenes with the Communists will have your brain working overload. Scarlett Johansson is the unexpected mother (and mermaid), Ralph Fiennes is a director who has both trouble on his set and some of the funniest dialogue in the film, Tilda Swinton plays twin sister purveyors of tabloid gossip, and Channing Tatum … is a national treasure (I mean that, too – I may not have fully realized it earlier in his career, but that man is the real deal, and when I see his name attached to a film now I get excited to see what he’s going to do – he does NOT disappoint here).
If you don’t get every last in-joke and reference to old Hollywood, it’s not a problem; with a cast like that, there’s something everyone will enjoy – but just in case there wasn’t, there’s Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie, a cowboy star of Western pictures that the studio wants to make a bigger star in dramas. In a cast that is so full of known entities, even the non-speaking extras are people you will recognize, Alden manages to shine and steal the focus in every scene he’s in – even while watching himself in a scene where he’s not the focus. The Coen’s always manage to get the absolute most out their actors, and they pull it off incredibly here again.
So how does it stack up against the Coen’s previous work? It’s a very funny film and had me laughing throughout, but probably not as funny as Lebowski or O Brother, more on line with Burn After Reading. Roger Deakins, of course, is masterful in shooting the film but I don’t know if he could ever top O Brother or No Country For Old Men in my eyes. As a whole, it doesn’t try to reach the loftiest plateaus, and as such is able to fully nail exactly what it was going for, instead of trying for too much and falling short as so many films do. It’s a great time, full of laughs, truly wonderful performances, and has Channing Tatum … well, just see what he does.
And if all that doesn’t entice you, here’s the final thing that just might – Both Clancy Brown and Christopher Lambert are in the film. A Highlander reunion! Thankfully they don’t actually share screen time, as I’m pretty sure they have to fight until one of them is beheaded every time they see each other.
For the record, the Coen’s have made 17 films that they wrote, directed and produced themselves. My favorites are O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men. Which are yours?