The Coen Bros latest comedic romp, Hail, Caesar! is a film predicated on the idea that the past foretells the future, which, in a way, is also true of their career path. In 2007, the acclaimed directorial pair dished out perhaps their greatest triumph, No Country for Old Men, reinvigorating their critical standing after a pair of poorly received attempts at capturing the same screwball fire of O Brother Where Art Thou?. After winning the Oscar for Best Picture, they followed up that success with Burn After Reading, a George Clooney led all-star comedy about the inanities of Washington Bureaucrats.
In 2013, Joel and Ethan pulled together another strong dramatic showing with Inside Llewyn Davis, which while not quite capturing audiences the same way as its predecessors, successfully married the dramatic eye of the brothers with the musical longings of O Brother. They now follow that picture with another George Clooney featured comedy full of stars focused on the absurd nature of another American establishment.
Burn After Reading is not what I would call an essential Coens film. I like Hail, Caesar! even less.
Everything you need to know about the film’s plot before going in is basically indicated in the trailers. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio head undergoing a bit of a crisis of faith, is in charge of making sure his employer’s films go off without a hitch, including making some tough PR-related decisions with some of their brightest talent. But when his biggest star (George Clooney) in Capital Studios’ biggest picture is kidnapped by a group calling themselves The Future, its up to Mannix to recover their leading man and save the epic production of Hail, Caesar!
It’s a deceptively simple premise, but much like their previous triumph A Serious Man, it’s another Coens comedy with bigger ideas on its mind.
The issue at hand is that it may have too many ideas, with too much focus provided in perhaps the areas in which its weakest. One of the most novel elements of the film is its approach to the McCarthy-era blacklist of Hollywood screenwriters. It’s not particularly giving up the game if I indicate that Hollywood’s communist ties play a big role in the film. At points I was particularly taken with how that movement was intricately tied into Mannix’s own existential troubles and the very picture he’s attempting to salvage. Hail, Caesar!, the in-movie film that’s being produced, centers on one Roman’s encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. As such, the film makes some not so subtle connections between the reviled communist activities of these Hollywood scribes and some of the core tenants that make up the teachings of Christ. It’s a daring move, and one that might bristle a few viewers, but the thought-provoking actions position the film as a sort of spiritual sequel to the far too under-appreciated Barton Fink, focusing on the external output of this era vs. that preceding effort’s internal creative struggles. There’s even a terrific final set of scenes that wraps this whole bit up in a bow in a fashion worthy of Wes Anderson.
Were this the lone focus and examination of Hail, Caesar!, the brothers would likely have another triumph on their hands. Sadly, the goings-on get far too tied down into the trappings of its own era, showcasing a number of different films the studio produces. Each segment, from a Scarlet Johannson led synchronized swimming routine to Alden Ehrenreich’s horseback gymnastics to Channing Tatum’s soft-shoe musical number, all begin rather charmingly but quickly wear out their welcome. By the second Ehrenreich showcase, you’ll begin to wonder just how long the running time is supposed to be. The biggest issue facing this admittedly handsome production is that it simply is all too much at once without much connective tissue to the meatier thematic underpinnings. Other than for particularly unamusing coloring, why should we care about a starlet’s pregnancy crisis? Or the twin Thacker sisters and their attempts at a scoop related to the kidnapped star? Or frankly, at times, a good deal of the somewhat duller happenings in Mannix’s day to day – just what does another meeting with Lockheed Martin serve? This is a 100 minute plus film that somehow feels 3 hours long.
Perhaps this underlines the biggest concern in that Brolin’s Mannix isn’t a particularly compelling protagonist. There’s a danger in shifting perspectives, from the dynamic screenwriter of Barton Fink to the studio heavy of Hail, Caesar!, but what makes it on screen, either through Brolin’s only sometimes affecting performance, or with a script that seems a bit tentative regarding its aims, lacks in its execution. Speaking of that script, the Coens, generally known for a dryer and sharper wit, play things much broader here in a way that smacks of ill fitting. The slapstick nature are several moments never quite land, with one scene in particular featuring Frances McDormand that’s so painfully unfunny, I was shocked it made the final cut. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve basically seen the most humorous bits.
There really is a lot to admire in Hail, Caesar!, from a lavish production, to the way the very films these actors inhabit inform the way they live their own manufactured lives (both Ehrenreich and Tatum are pretty joyful to watch with what they’re given), but it’s just a case of too much plot, too little focus and easily their messiest effort since The Ladykillers.
Or in other words, I’ve basically learned that all my least favorite Coen films star George Clooney.