Hail, Caesar! movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert (2024)


Hail, Caesar! movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert (1)

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It’s been some time since Joel and Ethan Coen have made afull-out comedy. The producing, writing, and directing (and editing, too,albeit under an assumed name) brother team’s last three films, “A Serious Man,”“True Grit,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” certainly haven’t lacked for funnymoments. But “Man” was an apocalyptic riff painted on two inches of ivory,“True Grit” a rousing adventure that gradually mutated into a memory play aboutloss and mortality, and “Llewyn Davis” was at least in part a deeply sad storyof inescapable existential failure. In other words, pretty heavy s**t. Theirnew film, “Hail Caesar!” is an exhilarating switchup: A comic fable that’s both deftly clever andirrepressibly goofy. It is also, from stem to stern, the sweetest and sunniestfilm the Coens have ever made. Although you might not guess that from itsopening shot, of a sculpture of a crucified Christ figure in a Catholic church.Bear with me.


Set in an unspecified period in 20th-centuryHollywood some time between the end of World War II and … well, certainly before1960, although the movie is meticulously determined in certain ways to be asahistorical as possible, “Hail Caesar!” depicts 28 or so hours in the life ofone Eddie Mannix, played here with a beautiful combination of no-nonsensegruffness and tortured tenderness by Josh Brolin. The Coens took the name oftheir character from the real-life name of one of the more villainous figuresin backstage Hollywood history (he was played by Bob Hoskins in the much darkerTinseltown riff “Hollywoodland”), but this entirely fictional Mannix is aharried ordinary-joe exec, “Head Of Physical Production” for a studio calledCapitol Pictures. Capitol churns out conscientiously produced but hopelesslyschlocky big pictures in a variety of genres, from Biblical epics to cornballoaters.

On this day in the life, Mannix has a number of big problems to contendwith. The front office wants Mannix to “promote” singing cowboy Hobie Doyle(Alden Ehrenreich) from B-western star to romantic comedy leading man, much tothe confusion of the eager-to-please Hobie himself, and the consternation ofhis new, exacting director, self-styled studio auteur Laurence Laurentz. Theaquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is newly pregnant,which is making her mermaid costume painful to wear, and on top of that, she’snot sure if she’s interested in marrying the father of her child, a refusal that would constitute a potential PR gaffe for a studio that prides itself on an All-American image. A pair of twin gossip columnists (both played byTilda Swinton) are demanding answers to awkward questions and threatening to gopublic with an awkward story about the studio’s biggest matinee idol, BairdWhitlock (George Clooney). Finally, and most crucially, Whitlock himself hasbeen kidnapped from the set of his Biblical epic, by a group of disgruntled Communistscreenwriters who call themselves “The Future” in their terse ransom note. Inthe meantime, Mannix must deal with his personal demons: he’s a devout Catholicwho almost compulsively goes to confession, much to the exasperation of hisotherwise kindly and indulgent confessor. He frets over having told his lovingwife that he’s going to quit smoking, and then sneaking some cigarettes duringhis stress-filled day. He’s also being aggressively courted by a recruiter fromLockheed, who tempts Eddie with a vested position, the promise of saner hours,and the chance to involve himself with something “serious.” How serious? Thischaracter shows Eddie a shot of a recent H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll. “Lockheedwas there,” he intones. You can tell this character is the devil because healways offers Eddie a cigarette when they meet.

The Coens being the Coens, they cannot, or rather do not,resist the temptation to take what were and remain serious mattersnot-terribly-seriously; in their funhouse mirror mashup of 1950s Hollywood, theostensible Red Scare was no “scare” at all but rather a Cold War component inwhich a big Hollywood star might conceivably defect to play “Soviet Man” forMosfilm. Once in the hands of his kidnappers, the amiable but boneheaded Whitlock—poorGeorge Clooney, playing his fourth idiot for the Coen Brothers, is stuck in agoofy Roman Centurion costume and haircut for the whole movie—is instructed inMarxist logic by no less a personage than Dr. Herbert Marcuse himself. (Okay,he’s only referred to as “Professor Marcuse,” but actor John Bluthal is made upto look like the actual figure.) All this co*ckeyed revisionist history mayinspire scary thoughts of Steven Spielberg’s (ostensibly) disastrous 1979 comedy “1941.” And to tell you the truth, there is more than a bit of broad,blithely unserious japery at play here. One also recalls “The Hudsucker Proxy”and the Sam Raimi-directed, Coen-Brothers-co-written “Crimewave.” But the CoenBrothers have funnier jokes than Spielberg did, and they also know their realstuff at an almost dangerous level—in the new commentary to “Inside LlewynDavis” on the Criterion Collection disc, writers Robert Christgau and SeanWilentz marvel at a throwaway Max Schactman reference in the movie that flewover the heads of 99 44/100th percent of viewers, and here theypresent an American Communist Party membership card replete with a Gus Hallsignature.


You can miss or ignore so many of these details and stillenjoy the exquisite clockwork mechanism of the movie’s plot, and/or the variouspastiches of old movies it offers up in differing manifestations. The goofily,cluelessly hom*oerotic “No Dames” musical number, starring a game-as-alwaysChanning Tatum, is a highlight, as is the near-p*rnographic whale-spouting imageryof the Busby-Berkeley-inflected Johansson-showcasing water ballet. (Around thetime of “The Big Lebowski” I asked the Coens if they were influenced by theTechnicolor musical films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and theywere characteristically cagey in response; here they acknowledge their fandomby scoring the water dance to a bit from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.”) Themovie’s performances are all spectacularly rewarding, but Ehrenreichpractically steals the picture as the completely ingenuous singing cowboy whoain’t quite as dumb as he seems, not by a long shot.

The movie makes light of the dialectic as explained to Bairdby Marcuse, but it also, in its tricky way, continually invites/compels theviewer to use it. Eddie Mannix is a good man who is very good at his job—buthis job seems to be manufacturing schlock. People enjoy schlock, but schlock isarguably an agent of The People’s oppression, so … anyway, one needn’t go on.Suffice it to say that in the cosmology of the delightful “Hail Caesar!”,regardless of the conclusions to which dialectical thinking may lead,acceptance is the key, and Hollywood,while “problematic,” is more a force for good than the military-industrialcomplex can ever hope to be. And, finally, doing the right thing is an instinctshared by both company men and singing cowboys, for whatever that’s worth.

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Film Credits

Hail, Caesar! movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert (9)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Rated PG-13for some suggestive content and smoking.

100 minutes


Scarlett Johanssonas DeeAnna Moran

Channing Tatumas Burt Gurney

Josh Brolinas Eddie Mannix

Ralph Fiennesas Laurence Lorenz

George Clooneyas Baird Whitlock

Tilda Swintonas Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker

Jonah Hillas Joseph Silverman

Frances McDormandas C. C. Calhoun

Alden Ehrenreichas Hobie Doyle

Alison Pillas Mrs. Mannix


  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen


  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen


  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen

Director of Photography

  • Roger Deakins


  • Carter Burwell

Production Design

  • Jess Gonchor

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Hail, Caesar! movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert (2024)


Hail, Caesar! movie review & film summary (2016) | Roger Ebert? ›

Set in an unspecified period in 20th-century Hollywood some time between the end of World War II and … well, certainly before 1960, although the movie is meticulously determined in certain ways to be as ahistorical as possible, “Hail Caesar!” depicts 28 or so hours in the life of one Eddie Mannix, played here with a ...

What is the plot of Hail, Caesar? ›

What is the meaning of the movie Hail, Caesar? ›

The story of “Hail, Caesar!” is the story of that same worship of secular images, but now, from one step further back, in mainstream Christian American society, and the Coen brothers offer brilliantly ironic parallels between religious belief—specifically, Christian doctrine—and the realms of Hollywood.

Is Hail, Caesar a good movie? ›

The Coen brothers' genius is rarely disputed at this point, and HAIL, CAESAR! further cements their reputation as filmmakers with a singular vision and specific -- and hilarious -- sense of humor.

What was Ebert's last review? ›

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder was Ebert's last review and showcased the director's iconic style and departure from his previous period pieces. Ebert defended Malick's filmmaking choices and believed that not every film needed to explain everything, highlighting the film's ambitious portrayal of spiritual longing.

What is the message of Caesar? ›

Two common themes from "Julius Caesar" are the power of rhetoric and honor and ambition. Cassius and Brutus use rhetoric to justify the killing of Caesar. Caesar and Antony are two characters who act with honor toward Rome.

Is Hail, Caesar based on a true story? ›

It is a fictional story that follows the real-life studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Brolin), working in the Hollywood film industry in the 1950s, trying to discover what happened to a star actor during the filming of a biblical epic. Hail, Caesar!

How does Hail, Caesar end? ›

In the final scene, Eddie goes to confession one more time. The priest tells him he's not so bad if he comes by too often. He also tells Eddie that God wants everyone to do what is right. This inspires Eddie to stay with Capitol Pictures and continue takfing pride in his job.

Did Romans actually say Hail, Caesar? ›

Latin greeting, meaning 'hail, be well'. According to Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars, gladiators in the arena saluted the Roman emperor with the words, 'Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant [Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you]. '

What is the expression Hail, Caesar? ›

“Hail Caesar” was the standard formal greeting to the emperor, and no more sinister than “Good morning, Your Majesty”, but after “Heil Hitler” we are disinclined to use such greetings today.

Is Caesar Based on a true story? ›

The play is based on the events that occurred in Rome, leading to the death of Julius Caesar. Though the play has historical elements taken from Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare intended it to have tragic elements. Caesar is portrayed as a noble character, whose death brings grief to the audience.

How does Caesar end? ›

Caesar is stabbed to death by the conspirators on the steps of the senate. Brutus delivers the final wound. Antony, who was friends with Caesar, shakes hands with the conspirators. When he is left alone, Antony curses the murderers and talks of revenge.

Why is Hail, Caesar Rated R? ›

Hail Caesar! is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some suggestive content and smoking.

What were Roger Ebert's final words? ›

Sometime ago, I heard that Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz, talked about Roger's last words. He died of cancer in 2013. “Life is but a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What happened to Roger Ebert? ›

On April 4, 2013, one of America's best-known and most influential movie critics, Roger Ebert, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, dies at age 70 after battling cancer.

What is the plot against Caesar? ›

Conspiracy. The conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar began with a meeting between Cassius Longinus and his brother-in-law Marcus Brutus in the evening of 22 February 44 BC, when after some discussion the two agreed that something had to be done to prevent Caesar from becoming king of the Romans.

What is the plot of Project Hail Mary book? ›

Project Hail Mary continues that tradition. When Ryland Grace wakes up alone aboard a strange spacecraft, he must discover why he's hurtling through the cosmos far from Earth—and why he can't remember his life.

What is the story of Remember Caesar? ›

"Remember Caesar" is a play written by Gordon Daviot, which tells the story of Julius Caesar's assassination and the events that follow. The play opens with the Roman Senate's plan to assassinate Caesar. Brutus, a close friend of Caesar, is conflicted about the plot and wrestles with his conscience.


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