By the time Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! (2016) opens the 66th Berlin Film Festival (the Berlinale) this coming Thursday, it will have already premiered to underwhelming domestic (U.S.) box office and positive, though not exactly sterling reviews. Combine this with the fact of a February release date that could not be further from Oscar season, and one would not be blamed for assuming that the Coen’s latest is, at best, a minor entry into their corpus. Quite to the contrary, Hail, Caesar! is one of the better, and more revealing films of the Minnesota-born Coens’ three-decade career, combining the filmmakers’ postmodern pastiche with a considered and comedic look at the course of Judaism in postwar Hollywood.
Hail, Caesar! opens squarely in neo-noir territory–the generic terrain most familiar to the filmmaking brothers going back to their debut Blood Simple. (1984)–on a rain-soaked Southern California street at night, with a voice-over that will continue to frame this genre-shifter moving forward. At the center of the Coen brothers’ ‘Hollywood in the 50’s’ story is studio big Eddie Mannix (an outstanding Josh Brolin), who is forced to put out one Babylonian, actor/director/journalist-made fire after another. In so doing, the Coens cycle through the Biblical epic that gives the film its name, a singing cowboy picture, an Esther Williams-brand spectacle, a stodgy drawing-room melodrama, and an On the Town-style musical that pauses for an extended song-and-dance set-piece. Not simply digressions, however, from the film’s central dramatic thrust–the kidnapping and political conversion of George Clooney’s boozing superstar; Hail, Caesar! and Clooney boldly play off the actor’s persona while referencing one of the industry’s bigger open secrets–they are a big part of its raison d’être, namely to make a film about the many sorts of films that filmmakers loved. Indeed, with Hail, Caesar! the Coens are inventing out childhood remembrance, out of their Saturdays spent in matinees or in front of their televisions, watching the grist that collectively attested to the genius of the bygone system.
Hail, Caesar! is also another in a line of Judaic-theme stories for the pair (see A Serious Man), with the focus, however comic, placed on the experience of the left-wing Jewish writer–and implicitly, his studio-boss opposite–in the era of McCarthy. (There is talk of dialectics that the aforesaid Clooney quickly, if somewhat uncomprehendingly takes to in a further parody of his star persona.) Then again, the Coens’ latest is exceedingly ecumenical, right down to its interfaith panel (with a rabbi presumably providing the filmmakers’ bemused surrogate) and the Roman Catholic religion of Mannix’s practicing hero. Ultimately, this is not a film that favors the Revolution or seeks to expose the evils and corruptions of the system it very lightly parodies; indeed, it is not a work of its polarized and bullying political moment at all, but rather of an earlier America, that of the Roosevelt coalition on the cusp of the Eisenhower era.
With Hail, Caesar!, the 66th Berlinale is already off to a significantly stronger start than it managed with Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night one year ago. Though it may be hard for this year’s vintage to match the highs of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (the latter was a surprise hit last fall at the Museum), new films by The House of Mirth’s Terence Davies (A Quiet Passion), Eden’s Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), Mud’s Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special), La Sapienza’s Eugène Green (Son of Joseph), Norte the End of History’s Lav Diaz (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), and Pulse’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Creepy), among many others, suggest the possibility of greater depth than we saw at the festival one year ago–even in a quite strong year for the fest. In the meantime, while you wait for this year’s best (apart from Hail, Caesar!) to make their way to the Museum, one of the remaining highlights from the 65th Berlinale, Andrew Haigh’s emotionally complex, Oscar-nominated 45 Years, opens this Friday.
On second thought, it will be very tough for the 66th to outperform last year’s showcase, and especially its exceptional competition.