HailCaesarcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 106 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve often thought that there are two main types of comedy: joke- and gag-filled ones that go for nonstop laughs, whether high brow or low, and the more subtle offbeat satires that make you smile with recognition, whether dark or infused with the positive energy of nostalgia and homage. The latter is the preferred style of people like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, so don’t be misled by a Hail, Caesar! trailer that was edited to showcase all the laugh-out-loud moments in the film. People who see the term “comedy” and think ha-ha funny, be warned: Hail, Caesar! isn’t as much LOL as it is a gentle satire and loving tribute to the final years of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the genre films that were mass produced on big-studio back-lot sound stages.

That means, for families wondering if this PG-13 movie is just the ticket for home movie night, the answer is yes—but only if your kids are older and have an intellectual curiosity that delights in seeing flawed individuals making their way through a life that offers moments of absurdity. It’s a yes, too, if your children can appreciate period films and the stories they tell that differ so much from our contemporary world. Tonally, Hail, Caesar! is like Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with less quirkiness, and visually it’s like watching movies made in the early 1950s. That makes for a winning combination unless your kid thinks old movies (and facsimiles like this) are boring.

As they did with Barton Fink (1991), Ethan and Joel Coen revisit the world of Hollywood unmasked, where left-leaning intellectuals and powerful desk jockeys are funny in themselves, as politicians were in Daumier’s time—so much so that the 19th-century political cartoonist had only to draw them as they were and trust that it would be enough to make his audience smile. Hail, Caesar! operates along the same lines.

HailCaesarscreen1Trailers and the title make Hail, Caesar! look more Roman epic than it is. This film isn’t about the making of a single picture, as we saw in Hitchcock or My Week with Marilyn. The plot follows a day in the life of studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures whose main job, it seems, is “fixer”—the troubleshooter who keeps the cameras and publicity juggernaut rolling. Eddie has been approached by Lockheed Corporation to take an executive position with them, but he clearly loves being a part of the movie business—enough to make him stay? That’s the $50,000 question.

Capitol’s prestige production is Hail, Caesar!, an ancient Roman epic subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” starring the temperamental and often drunk Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who disappears from the set. Is he on a bender? Has he been kidnapped? Getting him back is Priority #1 for Mannix, but there are other problems that he also must attend to, such as a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s out of his element when cast in a period drama and is driving his director (Ralph Fiennes) totally crazy. Then there’s a pair of sisters (Tilda Swinton) whose gossip columns can make or break a picture, star, or studio, and Mannix has to keep them from discovering such things as the rosy-cheeked unmarried star of his synchronized swimming films (Scarlett Johansson) being pregnant, or that a group of Hollywood Communists has claimed responsibility for kidnapping Whitlock and has demanded a ransom.

HailCaesarscreen2During the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios traded stars like baseball cards and owned them body and soul, often requiring them to be seen in public with another actor or actress to fuel rumors of romance when the couple didn’t even know each other, as we see here when the Western star is paired with the sultry starlet (Verónica Osorio) whose trademark is dancing with piles of fruit on her head, ala Carmen Miranda. This was an age of long takes, and a simple flub could ruin several minutes of film. Details like this and a scene starring Channing Tatum that’s reminiscent of the Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave movies are lovingly crafted, and the Coen brothers, famous for adopting a distinctive visual style for each film, faithfully duplicate the look of each period genre using CinemaScope and Technicolor. That visual style would be enough to make Hail, Caesar! well worth watching for people who appreciate films from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the casting is also a chief strength. Everyone nails their parts, with the possible exception of Jonah Hill, who really isn’t given enough screen time to make his own brand of desk jockey “fixer” rise above the ordinary. But that’s a small complaint.

Hail, Caesar! oozes with atmosphere, and 1080p Blu-ray is the way to enjoy all the period details. My wife and I both thought the film fell in the A and high B range. Our youngest teen, meanwhile, thought it was too slow moving and not funny enough to be more than a B- or C+. Which is to say, Hail, Caesar! isn’t for everyone.

Language: All very mild: just the occasional “bastard,” “son of a bitch,” “damn” and “hell,”
Sex: No sex, no nudity, just a reference to “sodomy”
Violence: Aside from a few slaps across the face, nothing
Adult situations: Smoking and talk of an actor’s past benders
Takeaway: There really ought to be a separate genre for intellectual comedies whose goal isn’t to keep throwing gags at the audience. Hail Caesar! is funny, but in a much different way.

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