Hail, Coen! ‘Caesar’ Keeps Hollywood’s Potential Alive

Erin Batchelder ’17
Staff Writer

It’s February, which means the movie industry is at a crossroads. A few weeks ago, the Oscar nominations were announced, and in just two weeks we’ll see what will end up the big winner. On the other hand, with festivals like Sundance and Berlin happening back to back, studios and distributors are busy looking for their 2016 new releases. Long story short: Hollywood is currently in overdrive trying to make it through the next few weeks of annual chaos.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen. After two decades of churning out critically acclaimed and audience-adored films, the Coen Brothers are putting to use their superb sense of comedic timing. This past week, they released the massive and star-studded “Hail Caesar!” The punchline? It’s a period piece about the 1950s Hollywood Studio Era – not the birth of the Roman Empire.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a studio executive who is tasked with the job of keeping his stars in line and under control. And in the style of Golden Era Hollywood, all the stars in this film are instantly recognizable and marketable to mainstream audiences. Scarlett Johansson plays a brassy starlet; Channing Tatum, a classic song-and-dance man. But the crème-de-la-crème of the cast has to be George Clooney, who returns to the helm of the Coen world as a movie star playing Caesar in the studio’s biggest production of the year. The film centers around Clooney’s kidnapping and disappearance – and Mannix’s struggle to find him.

Always the masters of every genre they tackle, the Coens are working in a deep tradition of major filmmakers who take on Hollywood. At first, one might think they’re playing an old tune, reprising the setting of Southern California that they featured in their 1990s Palme D’Or winning Hollywood horror, “Barton Fink.” But trust me, nothing in “Caesar” feels stale. It rivals and pays homage to classics like “The Player,” while reinventing and refreshing the genre.

In the new era where movie studios would rather sink millions of dollars into franchises and colossal blockbusters, the Coens have the benefit of total artistic control over their work. Their peers are few and select – Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino come to mind. Is “Caesar” a dangerously original new film bound for premature classic status? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie.

Ever since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers and audiences have been obsessed with the self-reflexive film. Movies about movies have always existed and will always exist. The experience of watching “Caesar” is fun and engaging – but also thought-provoking.  While they work and benefit from the Hollywood system, it’s interesting to return to the question of intent when looking at films by the Coens. With the release itself being a thumb-and-nose to Hollywood studios, the film uses the 1950s movie as a genre instead of a formula. And it’s not insignificant that in the process they transform the mechanical, assembly line style of the 1950s into art.

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