Like an increasingly larger part of the population, most of my friends no longer see movies in theaters, it’s all Netflix these days. So I was surprised when I mentioned I was going to the latest Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caesar! and was repeatedly told: “Oh I can’t wait to see that, I’m going next week.”
Maybe it’s because we’re in the dead of winter and people just need to get out of the house. Or perhaps it’s that the Coen Brothers have managed to build a reputation as edgy and mainstream at the same time. It could be the knockout cast: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill. Like they used to say at MGM: “More stars than there are in the heavens.”
Whatever the reason, a surprisingly number of people I know who never go to the movies are going to see Hail, Caesar! Which means that a number of people I know are going to be disappointed.
Heavens but I went into this movie with the highest of expectations. For starters, you can’t ignore the appeal of that cast. And though I’m not a rabid Coens fan, I do enjoy when they try their hand at pastiche, as in such films as Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Hudsucker Proxy (one of my favorite films of all time).
A Different Mannix
God knows I’m nothing if not an old movie freak with an absolute obsession for Hollywood’s Golden Age and since Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood studio “fixer” in the 1950’s and his work keeping the stars in line and the movies on budget I was all set to go!
Unfortunately the Coens weren’t. It’s difficult to point out where the problem is exactly; the movie feels overstuffed on one hand yet curiously under baked on the other. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s too … well, too sloppy and disjointed to be funny. They’re calling it a satire, but it’s not pointed or black enough for that. And I’ve read reports that it’s an homage to the big studios back in Hollywood’s heyday, but it only ever feels contemporary (dragged up in retro clothing).
Brolin plays Mannix who, as the fixer at the fictitious Capitol Pictures, is dealing with Johansson as DeeAnna Moran (loosely patterned after Esther Williams) the sweet girl next door who, in real life, has been thrice married and divorced and now expecting her first child. There’s Hobie Doyle (based on Gene Autry/Roy Rogers and played by Alden Ehrenreich) a singing cowboy who, inexplicably, has been cast in a drawing room comedy; the man can barely operate a tuxedo, let alone master his Noël Coward-esque dialogue. Tatum shows up as a Gene Kelly-manque and Tilda Swinton plays both Thora Thacker and her twin sister Thessaly, two gossip columnists (modeled on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons) hounding Mannix for dirt and direct access to the stars.
But Mannix’ most pressing headache (and what turns out to be major trouble for the Coens as well) is Baird Whitlock, the studio’s biggest property, currently starring in a Greatest Story Ever Told/Ben Hur/The Robe kind of Jesus-themed epic. Whitlock, played by Clooney, is kidnapped by a communist cell (headquartered in Malibu!) and they’re demanding $100,000 from the studio for his return.
How Mannix navigates a 24 hour period through all these people and their crises, as well as his own nagging Catholicism, makes up the “plot” of Hail, Caesar!
Probably the biggest problem is that the film simply doesn’t hang together in story or in style. There’s a bit of fun as the Coens gently lampoon the craziness of the movie business, and lightly sending up various Hollywood film staples (oaters, sword-and-sandal pics, water features, musicals, etc.) but the gags are obvious and easy at best. I would have assumed that the Coens where such movie freaks that their spoofs would be insightful and subversive but the results seem misguided and amateurish.
You (and by “you” I mean anyone who’s wasted the bulk their lives at the movies) always know a movie shot in the 50’s because of the lighting, the lenses and filters, the rudimentary special effects, even the positioning of the camera. But in Hail, Caesar! people are singing and dancing in a decidedly non-50’s style, there are shots which would have been impossible with the film equipment available in the period and even the color palette is off — what should have been lurid 1950 Technicolor is standard 2016 television. The Coens missed a great opportunity.
But it doesn’t matter because the kidnapping story keeps muscling into the movie, forcibly yanking us out of the cutesy spoofs and into … well I’m not sure. As Baird spends the day with his kidnappers they school him on the evils of capitalism and the beauty of communism. The joke is that a self-obsessed movie star would actually be interested in economic systems. (There’s a funny story about Gene Kelly throwing a party where Fannie Brice spent a few hours trying to explain communism to Katherine Hepburn. Finally Hepburn says to her: “Yes, Fannie, I understand all that … but will I be able to keep my jewels?”) But the Coens never fully play out the idea; instead we get a fair amount of screen time discussing economic theories and the tenets of Marx. (And I don’t mean Groucho.) So we’ve merely moved from scenes of unsatisfying spoof to underdeveloped satire.
But then we flip back to Mannix.
Then we skip back to Whitlock.
And back again.
And so on. Nothing is really developed and both halves get short-changed.
It becomes considerably more problematic at the end. At this point it feels like Mrs. Coen yelled upstairs: “Joel! Ethan! Turn out that damn light and get to bed!” The film just stops; story arcs aren’t resolved, most of the characters disappear and those that don’t commit actions which seem, at best, arbitrary. (And out of respect for the Coens, who probably didn’t mean it, and because I don’t want to give away spoilers out of respect for you I’ll refrain from discussing the film’s lazy homophobia.)
To be clear, Hail, Caesar! isn’t necessarily a bad film … believe me, I’ve seen far worse. It’s just that I expected (hoped for?) so much more.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.