Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

by Sam Robinson

Rated PG. Starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Hail, Caesar! is a film set in 1951 focussed on the production of a Ben Hur-ish film epic named Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, and the drama that ensues behind the scenes when its lead star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped from the film set. Eddie Mannix (Brolin), head of production at the film’s studio – Capitol Pictures – works to find Whitlock, while keeping rival twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played excellently by Tilda Swinton) in the dark.

It’s a fun plot, and for the most part it is a very funny – laugh out loud – cinema experience. Most of the laughs come from poking fun at the films produced out of Hollywood at the time – implausible stunts in westerns, choreographed camp dance numbers, and slow-moving period dramas. The Coens purposely insert western movie heartthrob Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich) into a period drama directed by the refined Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) and the jarring juxtaposition makes for one of the best scenes in the movie. It’s also shot really well, and the set design and costume is expertly fit for the era.

But for all the comedic value, the story does get a little confusing at points, largely due to the many Hollywood actors on the bill who show up for a scene or two and then disappear – Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson to name a few. These cameo appearances create a sense of disjointedness, like short sketches glued together. Full marks go to Channing Tatum – who once again proves his comedic chops, and his (tap) dancing skills – thankfully this time with clothes on.

Is Hail, Caesar! a tale of the Christ, though? Surprisingly, yes. There are at least two points in the film where the gospel is articulated with clarity – leaving this reviewer quite astonished. There’s been a lot of talk about the evangelistic opportunities of seeing Risen, but perhaps Hail, Caesar! will also provide ample room for discussion about who Jesus is.

One of the best moments in the film comes when Mannix gathers religious leaders together to try and get them on side with the film he is making, ensuring that their depiction of Christ isn’t offensive. Like a joke punchline, he converses with a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a Rabbi, and a protestant minister. Together they debate who Jesus is. It’s expertly written, and brought home that although Mannix’s film may be subtitled ‘A Tale of the Christ’, not everyone sees Jesus as the Christ. As our friends at Christianity Today point out, getting religious groups onside would have been the norm in this period of Hollywood history.

Hollywood still produces films about Jesus, and opinion about who he is remains divided around the world. As early as when Jesus walked the earth, people were questioning: ‘Who is this man?’. If what the Bible says is true – he is the Christ – the promised one who would come to bring restoration. He has done that at the cross, and to all those who trust in him, he gives eternal life. I hope that in all the silliness of Hail, Caesar! that audiences will see the power of Jesus, a person worth making many films about, and even more so worth exploring and investigating in the Bible.

The Verdict: Hail, Caesar! may not please everyone due to its meandering story, but overall is a well-crafted, surprising, and very funny ode to cinema of yesteryear. 4/5

Hail, Caesar! releases in Australian cinemas this Thursday 25th February, and in the UK on Friday, 4th March. It is currently screening in the USA.

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