Of all the troubling things about the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! – and there are plenty to choose from – the most problematic is that it’s barely a movie at all, but rather a serious of loosely stitched together sketches of wildly varying quality. Known for some of the most creative and tight screenplays in contemporary film history, it’s absolutely baffling to see the Coens deliver something with next to nothing at stake and zero involvement from a character perspective. It’s a who’s who of A-listers hamming it up with no clear direction. Only briefly does some signature Coen humor sneak in through the plot thread that should be driving the story, but is instead a tension-free, chatty side show.
Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the resident problem solver at 1950’s-era Capitol Pictures Studios. He starts the day by going to confession and revealing that he’s once again failed to quit smoking at the request of his wife. From there he heads to work to deal with a variety of fires involving diva actors and production problems with the studio’s pictures. There’s Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of their prestige picture, Hail, Caesar!, who’s gone missing. His captors are demanding a $100,000 ransom. There’s Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), director of a serious drama who can’t handle the addition of Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a green western actor, to his cast. Then there’s DeAnna Moran (Johansson), a water-dancing actress who’s pregnant out of wedlock. Lastly, there are competing gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton in a dual role) ready to go public with it all.
Hail, Caesar! never comes close to establishing firm footing in any of these plot developments. Scenes that initially provide chuckles (Hobie trying to learn one line of dramatic dialogue, for instance) get stretched past their breaking point. An extended musical sequence featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is impressive, but does nothing to progress the story. All of this must have read far better than it plays out. The Coens can almost always be depended on for narrative cohesion and not wasting a scene. Hail, Caesar! wastes scenes to the point of qualifying as filler. The best material comes at the hands of Whitlock’s captors, whose motives are clever and timely for the period in which the film is set.
Brolin and Ehrenreich (the true find in the movie) are the only ones to escape unscathed. It’s rare to see a cast of this caliber flushed away like this. It’s as if the Coens feel like simply having Scarlett Johansson (total screen time: maybe five minutes), Tilda Swinton (total screen time: maybe five minutes) or Jonah Hill (total screen time: maybe two minutes) show up in a scene is enough. Beyond Mannix, none of the characters are fleshed out beyond a single trait. No actor, no matter the pedigree, can make us care given that little to work with, especially in a movie lacking focus and a defined central story.
Hail, Caesar! doesn’t suddenly make the Coen brothers – otherwise brilliant filmmakers who’ve provided some of the last few decade’s best movie going experiences – incompetent. But it’s a bottom of their barrel effort, right there with 2004’s remake of The Ladykillers. But hey, after that we got No Country for Old Men. Hail, Caesar! is a frustrating and bewildering misstep, but one for which we should expect a correction. In the meantime, it’d be best to pretend you have goldfish memory with this offering.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 100 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
Theatrical Release: February 5, 2016
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Cohen
Written by: Joel Cohen & Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson