Hail, Caesar! February 15, 2016
Hail, Caesar! makes for a day in the life of a movie studio public relations correspondent, so troublesome is the way its adverts have suggested that it’s a screwball-like homage to the Hollywood Golden Age. In reality, it is a somber, sometimes sharply funny, satirical drama with as many things in common with Joel and Ethan Coen’s last film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, as it does with their underrated Burn After Reading (2008). It has as many patches of cordial contemplation as it does winningly anomalous stabs at comedy, and it is mostly successful when it comes to sending up the days of Esther Williams and Audie Murphy.
But I’m a little mixed, emotionally, that is, when considering just how well Hail, Caesar! comes together cohesively. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at, its period costumery and set design shimmering in its pitch-perfect artifice, and sure, its starry cast is flashy enough to leave us shaking in excitement that their assembly isn’t just something we dreamed up after watching some ritzy award show. But I find myself regarding the film as nothing more than a luxuriously photographed selection of terrific scenes, masterful and hilarious in bits and pieces but limited in what it has to say on an overarching level.
I think it has to do with the fact that this is the kind of film that needs a driving plot to keep its many references and homages fresh and funny. But it’s loose, and prefers a quasi-naturalistic story akin to 1992’s Hollywood satire The Player, which, by comparison, seems tight, despite its famously outrageous number of celebrity cameos. Its slice-of-life mentality might work if its ensemble were less sizable, but when you have Channing Tatum embodying Gene Kelly in one corner and Tilda Swinton doing Hedda Hopper in another, it’s imperative that structure is somewhere to be found to ensure that detours into the cheeky are supplements, not alluring distractions.
But the lack of a centralized plot often delineates Hail, Caesar! as a vintage Hollywood satire better when it’s having fun, taking shots at Cecil B. DeMille and Kirk Douglas for laughs. At its core, though, the film is a drama, and it’s a pity that we like it more for what it sometimes is, which is a skewering comedy. At its best, we’re tickled in ways only the Coens could manage. At its worst, we’d rather it go back to tickling and stay away from self-seriousness.
Storywise, Hail, Caesar! sounds like much more than it actually is. It follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) around for a day as he tries to sort out a problem most executives would break under: handle the disappearance of major star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who has seemingly been kidnapped by vengeful industry Communists and is being kept away from the expensive production of Hail, Caesar!, an epic in the same category as Quo Vadis? and Ben-Hur. Time is money, and the wasting of both could cost him his job. So imagine the stress that becomes him as he simultaneously has to deal with gossip columnists (Swinton), temperamental, high maintenance movie stars (Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich), bad rushes, goofy editors (Frances McDormand), and vague public relations experts.
Hail, Caesar! is a peculiar case in that its leading characters are, in fact, its least involving. While Brolin is a solid, morally steady hero, and Clooney is a riotous dimwit, we aren’t much inclined to spend time with them. We’d rather endure scenes with the secondary characters, which might be stock but are, regardless, written and acted with pomp and circumstance that reminds us why the Coen Brothers are masters of the black comedy, and how their quirky filmmaking instincts can bring out the best in big-name casts. Johansson is only given two scenes as the tough, New Yawk-accented Esther Williams imitator, but is nonetheless fabulously funny; Swinton is a fast-talking hoot as rival twin gossip columnists. Tatum dances and sings his heart out and wins over ours, and McDormand is the glue that holds together one of the film’s funniest (and most bizarre) scenes. But the real scene-stealer is Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a musical-western star forced to undergo major genre reassignment by the studio. Only twenty-six, Ehrenreich holds his own against an ensemble of veterans and runs away with the film as a whole, his comedic timing impeccable.
Hail, Caesar! more seriously touches on the Red Scare that walked all over Hollywood during the 1950s, and it reminds us that our romanticized notions of the decade are merely the result of selling dreams, not an ideological reality. The trademark quirks of the Coens are as lively as ever, but the film is only sporadically great, as if those involved failed to realize that its excellence is more dazzling when on the more humorous side of things, not the solemn. It’s all marvelously visualized — one just wishes it came together with as much concinnity as its individual scenes. B-