Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Each new Coen Brothers film is awaited with bated breath for the brotherly prowess of fantastic filmmaking. With so many incredible titles to their names, and so many different genres, there are those that perhaps think them infallible. Even their less acclaimed and celebrated films, like Burn After Reading, are often more entertaining and enjoyable than most other fare. So while the Brothers Coen come with a reputation that precedes them, with the likes of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men, each of their films should be received with new eyes, as these are filmmakers who like to explore genre and the possibility of adding their style to each. With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan look to make their stamp on the Hollywood prestige picture, which of course takes place in Old Hollywood.
The star of the film is Baird Whitlock, or is it George Clooney? But Baird Whitlock is not the center of the film, that’s Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), but not really because Mannix is a studio man, making his mark behind the camera and not in front of it. When Whitlock goes missing, Mannix must employ his cast of stars from the aquatic DeeAnna (Scarlett Johansson) to the dancing Burt (Channing Tatum) to the cowboy Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) and even star director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Mannix is manic to find Whitlock in time to finish the filming of Capitol Studios prestige picture of the year, Hail, Caesar!, in which a Roman soldier realizes the ways of Christ as he witnesses the Passion first hand. The cast is large, on “Hail, Caesar!” and Hail, Caesar!, allowing plenty of stars to show up, steal scenes, and otherwise entertain the heck out of audiences.
Much of the charm of the Coen brothers films has always been their sense of humor, even when the films in question were not necessarily comedies. With Hail, Caesar!, however, I would argue the film is certainly a comedy. The jokes land well, and there are plenty of opportunity for this marvelous cast to perform well under the auspices of a strong script. But the script is only strong in that it presents enough scenarios for its star studded cast to be themselves, be stars. As for the story at the root of the film, well it seems to be lacking. You see, there isn’t much of a plot. The main engine that makes the film move along is the motivation that Mannix must find Whitlock to complete his picture. But there isn’t much intrigue into Whitlock’s disappearance. There isn’t much interest into who actually took him, especially once that mystery is actually revealed.
The film is not made with gravitas in mind, and much of the picture benefits from this notion, but when the central plot of the film suffers from it? Well, then the resulting film is nothing more than a strung together series of well imagined, funny, and altogether pointless skits which serve as a reminder that the Hollywood assembly line used to make a good array of unique pictures which we don’t really see the likes of these days. It’s a reminiscence of the past, of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As such, the setting and concept of the film is charming, and brings enough laughs and gags to entertain. As a fully realized film, though, I would have to call it one of the weaker efforts from the Coen Brothers. Lucky for them, their filmography is strong enough to make ensure that is not really a criticism.
Hail, Caesar! then becomes hard to categorize, and I suppose that is like most Coen Brothers films and perhaps by their design. It is a comedy, and it excels at being funny, but the film is so slight and uneventful that I cannot help but feel as though I was watching clips from Old Hollywood, a series of vignettes meant to highlight the musical films, the aquatic films, the “prestige” films, to highlight the vast differences between the stars of each genre. The cast is good pretty much across the board, with Tilda Swinton’s sparse part stealing every scene she’s in, per usual, and the somewhat newcomer Alden Ehrenreich providing some very charming scenes as the singing cowboy asked to act a serious role for once. Hail, Caesar! is good at entertainment, much like the Hollywood it depicts. But it is not great, and should hardly be scorned for such an offense.