Hail, Caesar! (2016) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes
Small role: Jonah Hill, Dolph Lundgren, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, Christopher Lambert, Fisher Stevens, Robert Picardo, Fred Melamed, Christopher Lambert
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Review published February 6, 2016
Although I've enjoyed most of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit), there are occasional films, usually their comedies, in which I find little to connect with. The Ladykillers is a primary example of a comedy that seems to exist in a plane in which I'm tone-deaf to whatever humor is supposed to be in there. O Brother Where Art Thou is more beloved by some, but I found it to be devoid of tonal cohesion, despite my love of Homer's "The Odyssey" to inspire it. Though I like it in parts, I'm also a bit mystified by the rampant fervor for The Big Lebowski. And now, you can count Hail, Caesar! among the Coen Brothers' films that fail to gel for me in a satisfying way.
Set in Hollywood of the 1950s, Josh Brolin (Everest, Sicario) plays Eddie Mannix, an executive of the fictional Capitol Pictures film studio who is tasked with 'fixing' a host of extracurricular scandals that their contracted star performers are engaged in before the tabloids get a hold of the stories and ruin their big-budget prestige pictures they're set to appear in. One such problem involves their most bankable box office draw, Baird Whitlock (Clooney, Tomorrowland), who goes missing from the set of his sprawling biblical epic of a Quo Vadis or Ben Hur type, kidnapped (kinda?) by a group of Communists in the industry to impart their philosophies in private meetings, requiring much of Mannix's attention to keep anyone from knowing about until he figures out what's going on.
I can reduce the pleasures of Hail Caesar! to four basic scenes that are very fun to watch. One involves a director named Laurence Laurentz, played in a bit part by an excellent Ralph Fiennes (Spectre), trying to massage a good line reading into a serious and sophisticated drama from an ill-fitted cowboy stunt actor with a deep Southern twang named Hobie Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich (Blue Jasmine) in what may likely be a breakthrough performance. The moment of back-and-forth banter in trying to get him to say with confidence, "Would that it were so simple.", is as funny a scene as any in the golden age of screwball comedies. Another involves a lavish Busby Berkeley-style aquatic-ballet number that is every bit as lavish and mesmerizing as those that were made by him, spoofing to a certain degree the 1952 Esther Williams gem, Million Dollar Mermaid. A third is the riveting song-and-dance number that turns into one big 'gay joke', featuring Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) as Burt Gurney (sounding similar to "Bert and Ernie", which itself has become a kind of gay joke reference), who continues to defy every expectation by absolutely nailing what's required yet again through a terrific, well-choreographed dance and vocal performance that would be a gem in any old Gene Kelly musical piece. A fourth, perhaps the lesser of my examples, is a simple moment in which Hobie is waiting for a lunch date with the Carmen Miranda-like actress Carlotta Valdez (a name that references Vertigo for reasons unknown), and he takes out a lasso to perform some impressive tricks with it to pass the time.
These four scenes mentioned above constitute the totality of the moments in which I was mentally engaged with Hail Caesar! at all, and what's striking is that all four of them are merely there referencing some of the fun of movies in the early 1950s in loving and spirited ways, but aren't intrinsically necessary to have in the film to push forward the loose-hanging plot of a man trying to find the right path to either take a cake job with Lockheed Corporation, or to continue in his taxing career as a Hollywood employee whose responsibility it is to keep all of the studio's talent from putting a black mark on their careers or to jeopardize the films currently in production. That plot serves seemingly to service the Coen Brothers' need to have fun with old Hollywood, which they've done before in the style of The Hudsucker Proxy and the substance of Barton Fink, two lesser appreciated back to back works from the early 1990s that I happen to love. Not coincidentally, Barton Fink also features the same studio, Capitol Pictures, which perhaps could exist in the same universe, though in different eras.
The parts that don't coalesce are far more prevalent, ranging anywhere from the ponderous use of Michael Gambon's narration that is employed often through some segments, then largely forgotten for long spells only to surprise you when it reappears suddenly, to a lot of callbacks to the Hollywood writers discussing Communist concepts that, while definitely of the era, seem to be explored without much genuine hilarity as the farcical tone of them would imply. There are curious pairings here, with the two stars of 21 and 22 Jump Street in a film together, but that's not nearly as interesting as seeing the two stars of Highlander, Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown, also sharing another film credit. There are many in-jokes for film fans, which I suspect will mean that those with more investment in catching film references will delight in the nods, while those who just want to watch a good story independent of gratuitous name-dropping will be left perplexed. This is perhaps the most key reason why film critics are seemingly loving and wholeheartedly recommending Hail Caesar! and regular audiences just find it an odd misfire.
Motifs and symbolism abound, especially in its comparison of weighty things like religion and economics to the Hollywood industry. In many ways, watching Eddie Mannix, very loosely based on a real person in a similar position for MGM, trying to save the studio talent from trouble reminds me of films like Calvary, in which a priest lives his days roaming around the parish to ensure his own flock from going astray, mulling over a decision on his future of whether to do for self or continue to do the good work for others. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mannix is shown to be a devout Roman Catholic, as the film is bookended by scenes of confession, as well as a 'crisis of faith' that has him questioning whether to continue his devotion to an ideal that may be impractical in a world that is radically changing to non-belief, or if that's exactly why he is there -- to save those around him from doing harm to themselves and those who rely on them. There's also some commentary on the tug-of-war between art and commerciality, as the studios try to take the talent and vision of genuine artists and make them conform to the most broad, mainstream ways possible to gather the largest audience with the least amount of objectionable material.
The very end moment of the film feels...like it just ends -- a curiously unsatisfying summation to a film full of many ambitious (if flat) moments. Even great filmmakers make a dud every once in a while, and Hail Caesar! feels too simple to be lavish in some instances, or too haphazard to be incisive in others, causing the imbalance in comedy that marred an equally ineffective 1941 for Steven Spielberg, or Inherent Vice for Paul Thomas Anderson. Perhaps those with an intimate familiarity with early 1950s Hollywood -- seniors and film historians -- will find more to admire here than your average moviegoer, but speaking as a film buff myself, while I like individual moments, I think Hail Caesar! falls short of being as fulfilling a work as the Coens usually deliver.
©2016 Vince Leo