The Coen brothers are some of Hollywood’s, nay, the world’s most important directors. Since they entered the scene in 1984 with Blood Simple they’ve rightfully found huge success with their brand of offbeat stories and neurotic characters. Like Woody Allen before them, they’ve tried their hand at a variety of genres, yet kept their voice consistent throughout. They also have the rare distinguishment of appealing to the art-house crowds, while also finding commercial success in Hollywood and abroad. Like Allen, every so often they have a “pallet cleanser” project in between some of their “high-brow” fare that just doesn’t congeal the way it ought to. Hail, Caesar! falls into that latter category.
I did my best to go into this with an open mind. It was the Coen Brothers after all, and the trailers did their job well in alerting us to just how many BIG Hollywood Stars jumped into this projection (Tatum! ScarJo! Clooney! And more!), but there was always that sinking feeling: Why the hell is this being released in February? We viewers aren’t stupid; we know Hollywood dumps their bastard children during these cold winter months. It’s almost an unspoken agreement: give us the goods in spring and we’ll quietly look the other way while you deploy your bombs. Odder still, why release a film from the Coen’s – who almost always secure the all-important awards nominations that studio’s covet – in February when the awards race is already decided? And with such an Oscar-friendly cast to boot? You may, in your minds, have already answered my questions.
The story, in brief: Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, an old-school Hollywood “fixer” helping out with the troubled production of Hail Caesar, a film shooting on his lot. When the star (George Clooney as Baird Whitlock) goes missing mid-shoot, Mannix must lead the charge of collecting $100,000 and getting Whitlock back on set before the production falls into debt and outside forces (such as Tilda Swinton, as competing reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker) expose the mess. We also get Ralph Fiennes as an uptight British director, Alden Ehrenreich (channeling Matthew McConaughey, in accent only) as the good ol’ southern male ingénue, Scarlett Johansson as the Esther Williams-esque DeeAnna Moran, Channing Tatum as the Gene Kelly-ish Burt Gurney, Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun, and Jonah Hill as… I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Sound like a lot? It is. And don’t let the posters deceive you; most of these characters come as quickly as they go, with only Brolin and Ahrenreich guiding much of the action. Without spoiling too much, Communist agenda taking hold of Hollywood and its most influential assets plays a growing role in the story’s plot. All this might have added up to fun satirical lunacy (surely that was the Coen’s plan, as it’s worked in the past), but Caesar is split in so many pieces by all the films many moving parts that it never has a chance to start.
The old-timey Hollywood setting allows the Coen’s to rise to the opportunity of depicting famous imagery from the classics: western, big Hollywood dance musicals, high society romance, swords & sandals epic and even the “Aqua Music” subgenre. I have to imagine it was this creative challenge that drew the Coen’s to Caesar. The problem is, for all their effort none of the films within the film actually feel real. Clooney and co. all have fun vamping it up in said sequences, but it all has a silly “arch” feel to it that keeps us from buying in. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching characters, but instead caricatures with thick accents. One sequence involving Ahrenreich’s hillbilly cowboy attempting to sub in on a British period drama feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch whose punch line is telegraphed hours prior. Only Ralph Fiennes succeeds in creating a fully realized comic character that feels like he could of existed in reality, and still satirizes that reality as the Coen’s intended.
The Coen’s and director of photography, Roger Deakins do their best to match the composition and dynamics of old Hollywood “Pictures” throughout Caesar’s studio set vignettes, but even here things fall a bit flat. Aside from some nice color correction, Caesar lacks any real visual flair or signature style. Perhaps this is more glaring because Deakins is coming off the eye-popping Sicario. Production design and wardrobe are done well, if subtly, but still can’t shake the feeling that these are all modern actors in 2016 trying to capture a fanciful time gone by. Only a sequence involving a Soviet submarine really sparkles cinematically.
In watching Caesar, it also became clear that the story was just a means of packing in as many celebrity cameos as possible. This is a problem in modern cinema, where studio’s and producer’s pack in the star names to protect their bottom line internationally. The consequence of this security measure is often a sacrifice to the story’s creative integrity. I’m sure the brothers had the best of intentions, and it certainly looks like everyone involved had a lot of fun, but it all adds up to a whole lot of…nothing. A new character is introduced every other scene, each with their own agenda and their own accent (yes, this could have been retitled Hail, Accents!), rarely with any depth or purpose. In fact, very few of these characters reappear at all through the film. Johansson has two scenes, Jonah Hill arrives over an hour into the movie only to disappear after a few subdued exchanges of dialogue, and Frances McDormand gets a laugh or two out of the audience before she too is sent back to her trailer, never to be heard or seen again.
Caesar might ease some young artists’ anxiety: it’s proof that even with the best elements assembled, anyone is capable of a stinker. You can tell there’s love here for the subject matter. The Coen Brother’s want to honor the art of film as much as they want to mock its lunacy. Ultimately, it feels like the Coen’s and their producers just tried to do too much with this one. Hail, Caesar! wants to be satirical and reverent (and funny, sexy, political, and lavish too!), but it suffers from too many star names, too many set pieces, and too many story threads when a simple, streamlined caper with laughs would have sufficed. Focusing on one “behind the scenes” production gone awry with a clear-cut protagonist and one agenda might be a simple Hollywood cliché as it relates to storytelling, but it would have served the filmmakers well on this film which will instead suffer from another aforementioned Hollywood trope: the February curse.
Bottom Line: It might pain me to say it, but in a modern age where entertainment is bursting at the seems (television, internet, gaming) I really can’t recommend you spend your time and hard earned dollars on this one. If you’re a “Coen Completionist” you’ll see it anyway, even still, I’d wait for it to hit NETFLIX. If you really want to watch a smart, irreverent, absurdist take on old Hollywood Filmmaking that actually makes proper use of it’s marquee names check out IFC’s The Spoils of Babylon: Season 1. It’s the film (and the satire of film) HAIL, CEASAR! wanted to be