Hail, Caesar! and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Now that January is finally out of the way, we can get to the GOOD movies, right? Well… February isn’t exactly the best month for movies EITHER what with Valentine’s day being an invitation to release terrible rom coms, but then we ARE dealing with the Coen Brothers who have a pretty damn good track record when it comes to movies. Is this going to be another classic film in their catalogue, or is way below their usual standard of excellence and just be a decent film? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is the head of Capitol Pictures and an all-around problem solver for everyone who works there. He makes sure the bills get paid and that the movies stay under budget, but he also pulls actors out of embarrassing situations, pays police to stay quiet, and that Capitol Pictures keeps a respectable image despite the chaos that is brought before him each and every day. The day that the film takes place on turns out to be an eventful one as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who is the star of the studio’s biggest film, Hail Caesar, has been kidnapped. Not only that, but another big star at the studio DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is having a baby out of wedlock which Eddie needs to find a way to cover up, and another one of the movies on the lot needs a lead actor but the only guy available is Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who has only starred in cowboy pictures and they need him to somehow act in a classy movie about New York socialites. Will Eddie be able to deal with these problems and more as the day goes on? Will the world finally get an idea of just how mad the movie business is, or can Eddie keep everything on the down low despite several reports prying into the studio’s affairs? Do we get to see Josh Brolin slap the shit out of George Clooney!?
First of all, the trailers and commercials for this do a terrible job of conveying just what the movie is about. They all focus on the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, but that’s really only a third of the movie at most. The movie has more in common with Burn After Reading than anything else, in that it’s an ensemble piece about people who aren’t really sure what the hell is going on and are barely managing to keep things together while they to try to find some semblance of sanity. It also carries a lot of the problems that that movie had as well which is disappointing for a film that seemed to be a lot more interesting than what we ended up getting.
It ends up resembling a spoof more than anything else, though it in no way resembles what we normally see from movies nowadays that call themselves that. This is a completely exaggerated depiction of the movie business in the fifties with every actor playing a type from that era to a comical extent and it really is at its best when it’s exploring this by letting the characters be themselves and inhabiting this world within the studio. Josh Brolin goes from set to set which allows us to see the film making process for the various films that are being produced at the moment and for the most part these scenes are quite hilarious, with Channing Tatum’s song about the loneliness of Sea Men being the crowning achievement.
I wish that they would have stuck to this premise though because what ends up killing the movie for me is that nothing in this seems to matter or have any sense of urgency in a movie about a crime being committed. The kidnapping (which is a pretty big part of the movie) has zero danger or tension involved with it and comes across as just a nuisance for Eddie to have to deal with on top of every other minor annoyance that he’s working through that day. Does Josh Brolin’s character lead an interesting life as the head of this studio? Sure, but nothing in this movie (even the kidnapping) seems to be outside of his day to day existence (at least as far as his reactions indicate) which means there’s not much to differentiate today’s events from what we would see on any other day in his life. It makes everything feel unimportant and without any weight or impact which drags down the movie considerably. Every problem that Eddie has to deal with is resolved easily and off screen for the most part which WOULD be baffling if the Coen’s haven’t pull this kind of crap already (*cough* No Country for Old Men *cough*).
While we’re on the subject, every scene involving the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock is obnoxious and disappointingly simplistic… though I guess that might be the point? There are revelations as to why he was the one they kidnapped and what the kidnappers are all about, but these reveals don’t amount to anything other than being slightly quirky. They never pose a danger and there’s nothing to really prevent Baird from walking out the damn door, so what’s the point in dedicating a part of the movie to scenes of him schmoosing with these people and another part about Eddie paying the ransom with no nervousness about the situation or fear for Baird? THE MONEY doesn’t even come into play, as he’s able to collect it with a single phone call; no questions asked. There are no consequences, stakes, risks, repercussions, or even notable setbacks for ANYTHING that happened in the day this movie took place! Production schedule got pushed back a day on the Hail Caesar movie, but if Eddie can throw around a hundred grand without a second thought, I’m sure they can cover the cost of cast and crew for another afternoon. The adage goes (though I think I might just be cribbing notes from Adaptation) that you should write about the most important and interesting moment in a person’s life. If you aren’t, then why aren’t we hearing about that? I feel like this movie was TRYING to tell the most interesting day in Eddie’s life, but then we barely get to see that play out as most of his problems are solved by other people, either without a fight or completely off screen. It just felt meandering and sketch oriented instead of a cohesive story where all the pieces eventually come together.
Another problem is that they have a pretty extensive cast here, yet almost all of the get the shorted in terms of story and screen time. Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, and George Clooney all get plenty of focus here, but they went to the trouble of dragging Scarlett Johansson into this for two scenes!? They couldn’t even be bothered to have her show up at the end to close the book on her story and just have a different character tell the audience what happened. That’s just one example though. One of the funniest scenes in the entire movie is with Ralph Fiennes as a seasoned director working with Hobie on a picture that the kid is not ready to act in. The plot line with that movie though ends up being resolved off screen (how surprising) which feels like such a waste of an actor as great as Fiennes. Jonah Hill gets one scene, Wayne Knight shows up for five minutes, Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, all of them are just wasted here in a movie that feels like half a dozen really great sketches mixed in with the dumbest kidnapping story of all time. Channing Tatum gets a BIT more than the other cameos, but what they do with his character is ludicrous and so unexplained that it (like so many other aspects of this movie) doesn’t mean anything significant and just feels like it’s there for the sake of a twist. If everything else in the movie had been as good as these cameos were I wouldn’t have a problem with it; after all, this is an ensemble piece. The problem is that it all feels very unbalanced with the best material being too short and the weaker material taking up too much screen time.
Despite my criticisms, there is still plenty to like in this movie. The Coen Brothers are still great at writing dialogue and know how to shoot a film, so while the plot and certain scenes don’t work as well as they should, they’re not incompetently made and have moments of genuine humor (even the lame kidnapping scenes). There are also two characters that get the screen time they needed and they are Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle, the former being our guide into the wacky world of studio politics, and the latter being an up and coming star who might not have the skills needed to hack it in this industry much longer. Both these guys are fascinating individuals who are given lots of time and little details to flesh them out in meaningful ways. From Eddie’s obsession with punctuality to Hobie’s tendency to practice lasso tricks when waiting for something, there are moments throughout that endear us to them which is a shame when these details aren’t given to other characters. Still, their journeys are what carry this movie along when it isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. George Clooney as well does fine with his role (easily the largest after Josh Brolin and Alden Ehrenreich) but he’s less endearing than the other two. True, he’s supposed to play a dumbass, but I don’t feel the role was up to the actor’s caliber so he didn’t stand out as much as you would expect.
The idea for this movie has been sitting on the Coen Brothers’ shelf since 2004, and it honestly feels like a passion project that got out of hand. There were a lot of disparate ideas that they wanted to get through, but the movie itself wasn’t really able to contain everything and so some of it got cut short. I love a lot of what this movie is trying to do, what with the exaggerated look at fifties filmmaking that blends practical concerns about shooting schedules and cast management with over the top characters and personalities. I like that we get to see it from the point of view of the big man in charge so that we can get a broad view of everything going on, and even how they made time for one of the actors to get fleshed out and some dimension. Unfortunately, the script just couldn’t handle all these elements well and the kidnapping should have either been less goofy or dropped entirely. It’s a disappointment as a Coen Brothers film, but even low end Coen Brothers is better than most of the stuff out there, especially this early into the year. I’d recommend it overall for what it does well, but it might be worth waiting until it gets a home release before checking it out.
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