Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum
Release Date: February 5, 2016
The Coen Brothers films are the reason why we go to the movies. And as such we are given an experience unlike any other. From the drama of a struggling musician in Inside Llewyn Davis to the issues of morality in No Country For Old Men to the dark comedy of Fargo, the Coens prove time and again that they are clearly ahead of the curve and are just the smartest men in the room.
Their latest project, Hail, Caesar! is like a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Which is great, if it actually took the time to be something other than just a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. While the film touts an incredible all-star cast playing roles of all sizes, it is probably too smart for its own good.
The film takes place during the height of ’50s Hollywood – or Tinsletown as it was once called – where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Studios, tasked with many assignments of protecting the studios’ image, comes across a ransom note from a shadowy group called The Future that has kidnapped Barid Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the sword-and-sandals epic mid-production.
Now not every Coen Brothers’ film is made equal, and certainly everyone who appreciates their work can admit that they aren’t completely flawless. But Hail, Caesar! never really finds its momentum, instead, it works in spurts. At that time it really clicks, the snappy dialogue is engaging, the comedy is on point. But then it abruptly stops, as if it runs out of energy. Perhaps that is because Mannix is busy doing damage control for the studio from handling a recently knocked up DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams-type actress; getting the disgruntled film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to get along with Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) a singing cowboy who simply isn’t right for the part; and a few others.
It’s hard to place the blame on a script, especially one written by the Coens. It’s pretty much perfect, and doing it differently or improvising it is pretty much unnecessary. But despite the string of recent hits, something is amiss in their latest comedy. Maybe it’s the fact that the script is just too smart for its own good, but there are so many things that will most likely go over your head if you didn’t already know what the Coens are referencing. And it’s not the song and dance reminiscent of the days when Fred Astaire graced the floor with his tap dancing or the sword-and-sandals epics like Ben-Hur or Spartacus. It lies within the slow-burning dialogue that just takes too much time to ignite.
But when it works it works. There is a scene where Laurentz tries to get Doyle to “Where that it twere so simple” the way he likes it. There is a back-and-forth between the two that really works, and can get laughs, not ever once feeling like it is going on for too long or that it needs to end. There’s also a scene between Moran and Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), a lawyer who helps Mannix cover up that Moran is knocked up with an elaborate story. But there is just so much going on in Hail, Caesar!, that comedic energy never carries through seamlessly.
Maybe that manic pacing was put there purposefully, as if it were to highlight what really went wrong in the days where Hollywood studios needed fixers and gossip columnists, who were sitting on the latest scoop that could ruin the studio’s reputation, were eagerly waiting on the same studio lots to get an exclusive story in exchange for releasing the story. Then there’s Johansson diving into the center of synchronized swimmers only to rise from the depths as the music reaches its climax. The hilarious sword-and-sandals epic starring actors with those thick Bronx accents is also hilarious to watch. But of all the things I never expected to see from a Coen Brothers’ film is a full song-and-dance number featuring Channing Tatum. These nods to ’50s Hollywood are great and are a pleasant reminder of what Hollywood was once like before the days of shared universes, YA novel adaptations, and sequels.
The shot selections and viewpoints so perfectly chosen by the great Roger Deakins is also one of the great things about this film. The lighting, in particular, adds to the effect that Hail, Caesar! looks like it really was filmed during the ’50s.
Brolin and Clooney’s performance are the real winners of the film. Brolin with the tough guy who is able to coordinate and clean up a problem with a snap of his fingers, and Clooney playing the dim-witted guy we are accustomed (not that that’s a bad thing) to seeing in these Coen Brothers’ films. If anything, the film fails to find that balance using too many of Mannix’s assignments to connect the dots to reveal a much bigger and more nefarious plot.
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