Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Writers & Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert, David Krumholtz, Dolph Lundgren, Michael Gambon.

The latest movie by the Coen Brothers should definitely only be seen by people who are both familiar with the duo’s previous efforts and are fans of their films. If someone is uninitiated to the brothers’ style (though, at this point who isn’t?) or dislikes it, then they will surely be baffled by this latest film or will detest it. It’s a hard film to watch even for those of us that consider themselves fans. Tonally Hail, Caesar! is a return to the more quirky and lightheartedly comedic films the brothers have eschewed as of late, in fact the last film that could be defined as a comedy is 2008’s Burn After Reading (maybe 2009’s A Serious Man could count, but barely). The writing and directing duo has explored different genres and styles lately which have resulted in films as diverse as Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, and No Country for Old Men. And yet for many fans the Coens’ signature films lie in the comedic quirkiness of films like Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, Barton Fink, and Miller’s Crossing. [Note: I know I have to mention it, but I will do so in brackets because, (blasphemy), I am really really not a fan of it: The Big Lewbowski belongs on that list as well.]

There have been two straight-up flops in the brothers’ filmography: Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Those two films are really unwatchable and one thing everyone agrees is that they are best left forgotten. Some might want to add Burn After Reading to the list, but I argue that that film should be given a second chance. It is better than people remember and had a lot going against it: it came out during the Hollywood dumping ground that is the end of summer, it was the followup to the Oscar winning NCfOM, and it was such an abrupt break from the type of film they had just made. Unfortunately the latest film from the two auteurs is not their best, and only ranks slightly above their two worst efforts.

Hail, Caesar! is in many ways a reunion of sorts between the directors and cast members from previous (and better) movies. This is George Clooney’s fourth outing in a Coen Brothers movie, Josh Brolin’s third, Tilda Swinton’s and Scarlett Johansson’s second, and Frances McDormand’s EIGHTH (though she is married to Joel Coen, so take that number with a grain of salt). It may have been nice to see the addition of other notable repertoire players like John Goodman, John Turturro, and Holly Hunter, but alas, it was not to be and the film already was overstuffed as it was and didn’t need anyone else clogging the already overflowing menagerie of outlandish characters. And a note about the characters, perhaps it’s because the cast is made up of some actors who have also appeared in Wes Anderson films, but the film is made up of people who read as not quite human; everyone felt way over the top and so exaggerated that even actors I admire and worship (Swinton and McDormand, for example) were stridently awkward and nobody seemed to coexist in the same universe, let alone film.

The film is so clearly an homage to Hollywood in the 1950’s, and yet it was very very hard to tell if it was a harkening to the glory days of Hollywood, or an indictment of the era. The film sheds light on the Cold War era’s red scare and mccarthyism, it connects with the birth of gossip columns, it highlights the closets that people used to live in (pregnancy, homosexuality, affairs, etc.). But the film also celebrates the type of filmmaking and the films themselves of that period of tinseltown magic: the big Hollywood historical epic, the movie musical, the western, and the glitzy shine of choreographed mermaid films. What is this film trying to accomplish?

I went to see this film with three good friends, one of whom has made the study of film her life’s calling. Guess which one fell asleep? Those of us who made it through the entire film were left confused and baffled, and let it be known that I am the one that reacted the most positively to the film. For nearly two hours I was extremely frustrated because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the hell was going on, what I should be paying attention to, what the story ultimately was about. Only when the final credits rolled did I realize that I was watching a movie about the hectic, ridiculous, and crazy day in the life of a Hollywood fixer who must protect the secrets of Hollywood’s elite. Until the last seconds of the movie I didn’t realize that Josh Brolin was the protagonist. That cannot be a good sign, right?

Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the aforementioned fixer, and everyone around him makes his job very hard to do. Clooney is a lothario of an actor who goes missing from set when he is kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters (funny how this film comes out on the heels of Trumbo, which actually felt like a Coen Brothers movie). Johansson is an actress who is in “trouble” and isn’t married. Tatum is a tap dancer with a secret. Swinton plays TWO twin rival gossip columnists out for scandal and shocking secrets. Fiennes is a big time director with a penchant and preference for male company. As Mannix makes his way from set to set the viewer is treated to musical and dance numbers, important monologues, cattle herding, and the like. These sendups to a long lost filmmaking process are nice but they are distracting and bring any momentum the film may have to a screeching halt. Channing Tatum’s song and dance number makes up nearly 10 minutes of the movie and has absolutely nothing to do with the story other than to establish him as an actor who is supposed to remind us of Gene Kelly. I kind of liked some moments and some sequences, but I was very frustrated because I felt like I was on an old-timey tour of a studio, rather than watching a movie with a reason for its existence.

Hail, Caesar! tries to recapture the zany feeling that’s been missing in the Coen Brother’s recent work, and adds in some The Man Who Wasn’t There noir-esque tones, but overall the film lacks motivation and, worse, substance.

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