The latest film from the Coen Bros. is perhaps best described by the term ‘indecisive’. The brothers, coming off their wonderful screenplay for Bridge of Spies (review), sat down to write a screenplay about the Golden Age of Hollywood and simply could not figure out where to put their focus. Is it a movie about the Communist agenda? The famed Hollywood exec Eddie Mannix? A musical? A mystery? Perhaps facing a deadline, they simply opted for all of the above. The end result is a movie that never gels entirely but retains the charm, black humor and wit that makes even a B-level Coen Bros worthy of your consideration during the mid-winter blues.
Hail, Caesar! is the Bros’ love letter to the studio system of the 1950s, where studio bosses called the shots and actors, under contract, were shuffled to whatever role the higher ups thought would bring in the most profit. Anchoring this typical Coen farce – snappy dialogue, awkward nods and breathless pacing – is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production at Capitol Pictures. Based on a former studio mogul of the same name, Mannix darts from set to set in a hectic 48 hour period, defusing every little crisis that comes up: children out of wedlock, bad actors, theological considerations, twin gossip columnists, the hydrogen bomb. The usual stuff. His greatest challenge occurs when the studio’s top star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a mysterious and amusing group that calls themselves ‘The Future’. It’s classic screwball comedy, with a twist of Coen.
The film is at its best when it follows Mannix in solving his artistic related crises. Brolin makes a dry, gruff guy like Mannix wonderfully fun and charming. He even slaps around an errant actress to keep her name out of the rags the next day, and we still love him (to be fair, he also goes to town on a male actor with thrice the slappage). It’s when the film departs Brolin, usually to show off the Coen’s expert way of aping the style of Golden Era filmmaking, that you feel the movie spinning wheels. It’s not that these scenes are fun, they are just a little overindulgent. Only the fact that it’s Joel and Ethan Coen behind the camera saves Hail, Caesar! from becoming little more than a series of slightly interconnected vignettes. Hilarious as they are – such as the awkward but jovial scenes between Whitlock and members of The Future – these side stories remain little more than slight distractions.
A chance for the Coen Bros to roll out a seriously impressive list of cameos: Scarlett Johannsen, Tilda Swinton (in two roles!), Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Christopher goddamn Lambert, Ralph Fiennes and on and on. It’s open casting call on anyone who has ever wanted to be in or reappear in one of their movies.
Hail, Caesar! is a successor to their broad comedy ensemble films like The Big Lebowski , O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers . Unlike those other ones, and I include Ladykillers though it is often considered their weakest entry, Hail, Caesar! ’s central character is not as interesting as The Dude, Ulysses and Professor Dorr. The Coen’s have put all their tremendous creative focus into the razzle dazzle of old Hollywood, trying to cram as many cliches and homages into the film that they let their main guy fall by the wayside.
The clincher is, of course, why not? The Coen Bros, having made 16 films before this, can fuck around because they’ve earned it by this point. So they go big…in the old traditional style.There’s a synchronized swimming sequence that is all sorts of wonderful to watch, as well as an impressive bit of horseriding. And at 100 minutes, the movie zips along. It may not all fit together at first, but at least it doesn’t feel bloated.
It being a Coen film, I am certain Hail, Caesar! will only grow in estimation in the years to come. I wasn’t a huge fan of Lebowski when I first saw it, either. Unlike their undeniable top cult classic, though, I’m not sure entirely if there’s anything else going on underneath the surface of Hail, Caesar! beyond a bunch of talented actors playing dress up for a weekend. Call it a farce, call it a satire, call it a lark. But above, call it what it is: a Coen Bros film (and all that implies).