On seeing the trailer for Hail, Caesar! I was struck by two emotions: 1) Overwhelming joy at the chance of watching the new film by my favourite directors, and 2) a little nagging sense of doom that they let production values impinge on the story. The nagging voice was right.
Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures (Barton Fink anyone?) during the Hollywood Golden Age. His time-consuming job is to keep production moving, keep the actors on the straight and narrow, and to keep any discrepancies out of the reach of the gossip columnists (there are two of them in this film, both played by Tilda Swinton). The big show at the moment is a Biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar”, featuring the number one star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman general… until Whitlock is kidnapped from the set.
Now not only does Mannix have to worry about getting Whitlock back on set, but also to keep a terrible secret from Whitlock’s past buried, while also dealing with the rushed casting of a Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a bourgeois drama and the pregnancy of an unmarried synchronised swimmer, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and a job offer from Lockheed, and…
If that sounds like a lot, it is.
The plot of Hail, Caesar! is really little more than a series of loosely interconnected vignettes. The film could have been improved substantially if the Coen’s had focused on the kidnapping of Whitlock and Mannix’s efforts to get him back while having a few subplots there to back it up. However, even the Whitlock story, after the first twenty minutes or so, becomes just another problem in Mannix’s day along with all the other ones (also, the Whitlock story takes a sharp turn into communist philosophy which I don’t think suited the tone of the film). It’s a pity, because a lot of the initial ideas were excellent. There’s a fantastic musical sequence starring Channing Tatum that we could have done with more of, and the DeeAnna Moran story was developed with imagination and humour – humour that is unfortunately lacking in the remainder of the film.
Although one could argue that given their absurdist viewpoint there is comedy in every Coen Brothers film, the actual laughs have been substantially cut down for Hail, Caesar! so that it is more intellectually amusing than hilarious. For instance, there is a theological discussion between four religious leaders about the representation of Christ and the logic of the film-within-the-film that one can tell is funny; but it wasn’t executed with the same snap and surrealism as, let’s say, the conversation between the three friends in The Big Lebowski about the Dude’s rug, which generates a physiological laugh.
In general, the craftsmanship across the board of Hail, Caesar! was not as impressive as the Coen’s previous work. This was their first film shot entirely on digital, and though I don’t want to go bashing digital, this one doesn’t look as good as, say, Barton Fink, set in a similar time and place, and shot on celluloid. One of the main features of the Coen’s style I’ve picked up on over the years is their attention to colour, particularly browns, and the sharpness of their images by means of carefully placed lighting. The colours of Hail, Caesar! tend to bleed together, the lighting I found to be quite flat and overexposed, and the images felt more claustrophobic than usual.
What a shame. The actors do a good job, but they don’t stay around long enough for us to invest in them… except for Eddie Mannix. Josh Brolin was really an inspired choice here. Over the course of his career, he has played mostly tough, taciturn characters, such as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Here, however, he combines his exterior toughness with the measured wit of a con-man, the sensitive heart of a loving husband and father, and the devotion of a committed Catholic, so that he shines out among the A-list names he’s surrounded by. It’s no easy task to steal the show from the likes of George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, but Brolin succeeds admirably (oh yes, Ralph Fiennes is there too).
So, what do we have here with Hail, Caesar? We essentially have a “Greatest Hits Compilation” for the Coen Brothers, complete with nice sets, quirky characters and a hint of philosophy, which may be a good introduction to the Coen’s universe for the uninitiated, but will likely leave fans disappointed. However, even a second-rate Coen film is better than a typical second-rate film… just don’t try keeping track of the missed opportunities.
* * * 1/2
P.S. Stay tuned for a review of one of my favourite Coen Brothers films, coming soon…
Note: It has been brought to my attention that Hail, Caesar! was in fact shot on film, but I stand by what I say that this film doesn’t reach the high standard of visual flair that the Coens and Deakins have set for themselves