A good Coen brothers film is wildly entertaining, giving you unique characters, crazy plots and their usual quirky humor. A great one, on the other hand, leaves you a little unsure and cold, creeping back in over the following days and sending your mind racing as you unpack their intricately crafted scripts and settle into a retrospective reverence. Hail, Caesar!, the latest from the sibling auteurs, aims to satisfy both these appetites but ultimately falls short. That signature Coen satire is on full display, and there is some fun goofball comedy throughout the film, but it’s too often an exercise in indulgence, retreading theological quandaries the pair have explored previously (and more successfully) and getting a little too lost in Hollywood nostalgia. Fans will no doubt find value in Hail, Caesar!, but it’s a difficult recommendation to anyone not excited by spending time in another Coen-created world.
Leading a fittingly eye-catching cast, Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a fixer in the golden age of Hollywood under the employment of Capitol Pictures. He’s a man that is great at what he does and is proud to be doing it, but is also worn down by the grind and tempted by an offer for an easier and less artificial career. Among the everyday concerns of forcing a meat-and-potatoes yokel into a high-society drama and reinventing the story of a knocked-up starlet, Mannix faces one of his bigger challenges when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Capitol’s prestige Roman epic, is kidnapped and held ransom by a cell of film-industry communists.
So, straight off the bat there’s plenty for the Coens to play with. A crazy setup, a star-studded cast, and the brothers’ usual penchant for escalating hijinks all make for what should be a frantic and entertaining ride. Astoundingly, Hail, Caesar!’s plot actually turns out to be quite dull, with almost all the major developments shown in the trailer (where they were presented with far more vigor and suspense than in the actual film), and instead the big crime just becomes the larger of Mannix’s slate of problems to fix. Worse is that Mannix never really does anything to resolve the story, with all big plot threads canceling themselves out in very underwhelming fashion. No doubt there is subtext, as the Coens intended, just as the climax to the kidnapping was meant to convey a comedic irony, but in the end it threatens to leave the audience confused, feeling like they’ve been mislead into believing the plot was the thrust of the movie and not the peculiar characters and questions about religion.
But however obtuse some may find the film’s metaphors, it is here where you will find Hail, Caesar!’s most interesting content. The film delivers an inventive discussion on religion as an institution (avoiding critiques or approvals on its associated beliefs or spirituality), with Hollywood playing the part of the church and Mannix both its chief prophet and clandestine defender. The application of the metaphor is such an easy fit (what with Mannix warping fictions to protect stars images to the world, not to mention his messianic crisis of faith, obviously toward the studio, but discussed in a confession box) that you could almost miss it completely if not for some key comparisons and a direct and otherwise out-of-place conversation about God. It’s a fun exercise, but even more so than other Coen projects it’s almost tiresome to try and decipher the point they are trying to get across. Taken at it’s most elemental, Hail, Caesar! is a comparison of two cornerstone American institutions, one ancient, the other just old, but even with this simplification you’re left wondering which they are using to explore the other.
A little less inspired, but also much less challenging, is the film’s ever-so-slightly sarcastic reverence for the Hollywood of old. Hail, Caesar! takes great joy in reimagining antiquated Golden Age set-pieces, providing some comedy with good-spirited stabs at outdated tropes and loving homage to others. This is, undoubtedly, the most indulgent part of the film, but viewers open to having some fun with an old-school Hollywood sandbox and letting the plot take a rest for a time will find their patience rewarding. To put it another way, if you’re the type of person who can appreciate watching Channing Tatum perform a fully choreographed tap dance in a sailor’s outfit you’ll probably get some laughs from the film, otherwise you’re almost certainly going to be checking your watch on more than a few occasions.
You’ll notice that despite how big a cast Hail, Caesar! boasts, I haven’t really spent much time talking about them. Sadly, that’s because a lot of the characters in this film are pretty inconsequential. It makes sense to have a big cast in a film about Hollywood, and talent like Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill and Ralph Fiennes, as well as the aforementioned Clooney and Tatum, are always bankable additions to a film. But aside from Mannix’s concern with them, they mostly amount to no more than entertaining cameos. I would be remiss, however, not to mention Alden Ehrenreich’s golden-hearted Hobie Doyle, who not only receives a much more substantial role than most of the supporting cast, but also earns some of the biggest laughs as a fish-out-of-water cowboy.
Brolin, gifted with a significantly meatier character, gives us a notable creation with Mannix. He’s a little surly and deceptive, but he’s a man that believes whole-heartedly in what he’s doing and there’s undeniably a proud American heart beating beneath his worn, desaturated suit. Given the film is comparing a sleazy Hollywood fixer with a divine figure, it was essential the Coens and Brolin got Mannix right. It’s not an easy task to balance his likability while at the same time establishing him as a devout agent of a greedy and superficial machine, but it works enough that Mannix ends up being one of the Coens’ more memorable characters. Which is doubly impressive considering Hail, Caesar! has every chance of being one of their most forgettable movies.
Like most films from the Coens, you get what you put into Hail, Caesar!, but here the rewards are much less obvious and cerebral and instead more warm and comforting. I have to admit to giving the Coens a bit more leash then I would other creative teams, but to be honest they’ve earned it, and I have to imagine a lot of the people interested in Hail, Caesar! will go in with a similar mindset. Even so, there is no denying this is a particularly loose production for filmmakers whose works are usually so lovingly crafted. Hail, Caesar! is a dip in quality for the Coen Brothers, but for directors this prodigious, even a weak entry is worth a tentative recommendation.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10