Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)
Hail, Caesar!: Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. Running time: 106 minutes.
I’d love nothing more than to praise Hail, Caesar! as the latest masterpiece from the Coen Brothers, especially after hailing Inside Llewyn Davis as one of the best films of their career. Yet this latest movie hews closer to their lesser comedies (films like The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, and even The Ladykillers) that sacrificed heart and character for homage and buffoonery. And so they’ve transplanted that approach to the Hollywood heyday of the 1950s, sprinkled it with quirky characters and insider references, and yet again come up with wildly uneven results.
Josh Brolin appears in his third Coen Brothers film playing Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood “fixer” whose job description basically requires him to babysit Hollywood stars and their reputations. The work keeps him busy, as he wrangles unruly actors and attempts to quell public relations disasters in the form of Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists. Yet he also must contend with a possible kidnapping situation, as one the studio’s prize stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has just been nabbed by a shady organization called “The Future.”
Or…at least, that’s the premise sold to us in the trailer. Mannix is so busy with other problems (and the film indulges in so many other plot threads) that it’s hard to ever be invested in either Mannix himself or any of his charges. One moment Mannix is assembling petty cash for Whitlock’s ransom, the next he’s popping over to a restaurant for a possible job opportunity with Lockheed. Along the way, we also meet a “singing cowboy” star named Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich), a Gene Kelly-esque dancer (Channing Tatum), and an Esther Williams-type aquatic performer (Scarlett Johansson), all with their own stories and quirks.
The Coens indulge in numerous set-pieces, to varying degrees of success. When they work, they work like gangbusters. Hobie’s casting in a British period piece directed by Laurence Laurentz (a winning Ralph Fiennes) leads to the film’s funniest moment, with Laurentz attempting to transmute Hobie’s Southern twang into a refined British accent. Ehrenreich, who made a small but memorable impression as Cate Blanchett’s son in 2013’s Blue Jasmine, might be the one lovable character amongst such phonies. You buy him every moment, even as you’re aware of his affectations.
But for all such moments, there are prolonged scenes that clearly the Coen Brothers find funnier than we do. Whitlock’s extended stay with his captors ultimately leads nowhere. You feel as if the Coens are attempting to juggle multiple plot threads for some grand statement on Hollywood, yet they indulge themselves to the point of losing grasp on the subjects they attempt to parody.
The Coens have done zany comedies before, and have proven they can maintain a greater sense of focus. Look no further than Raising Arizona, a tale of marriage and parenthood anxieties masquerading as madcap farce. And The Big Lebowski, for all its psychedelic detours, maintained a vital friendship at its core. What’s more, those movies had iconic characters at their centers. The Coens (and Josh Brolin, for all his skill) can’t seem to manage the same here, as Mannix is reduced largely to his moustache. He’s unscrupulous, for sure, but that’s hardly a trait to justify spending so much time with him.
Committed to gags and punchlines, the film ultimately lacks any poignancy. It’s a shame because I know the Coens are fully capable of it; in fact, they’re masters of it. All that said, I may be willing to give the film another chance before the end of the year. For now, here’s hoping the Coens have a few more dramatically savvy features on the way.