Ethan and Joel Coen, singular iconoclasts of modern American filmmaking, have created such an expansive and altogether idiosyncratic filmography throughout the decades, their work could practically serve as a genre unto itself. With that, a new entry to their canon rouses a sense of grand importance among cinephiles but also the dangerous threat of diminishing expectations; no one likely ever wants to write the phrase “minor Coens.” With that in mind, the latest Coen Brothers joint, Hail, Caesar!, a candy-colored period yarn set during the declining days of the Hollywood studio system, as such, comes rather close to falling off a cliff, leaving most of its delights squarely off to the margins. Would that it twere so simple.
Thankfully, the margins themselves are pretty spectacular though. In realizing this winking 1950s Hollywood confection, the Coens enlist their usual deep bench of designers and technicians to run wild; so much it seemingly becomes more and more apparent that the least attention may have been centered on the screenplay; not that there’s isn’t fun and novel gaiety along the way. Hail, Caesar! centers, for the most part, on a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (played with appropriate gruff by Josh Brolin), a “fixer” of the fictional Capitol Pictures. An imposing and serious figure, it’s somewhat telling (if also, a bit arbitrary) that Mannix both begins and concludes his day in the confessional booth.
It’s Mannix’s job to keep the Capitol Pictures stars in line and make sure their various scandals stay as far away from the front page as possible. Film buffs are surely aware that a real Eddie Mannix existed during the Golden Age of Hollywood and did much the same thing during a storied tenure at MGM. The Coens are only interested in broad strokes here but that glue to film history consists of most of Hail, Caesar!‘s fun, so a TCM-soaked refresher course might be in order. Mannix’s trials on this particularly odd day consist of raspy screen siren DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson channeling a Esther Williams-like bathing beauty) and her unplanned pregnancy (like Loretta Young, an apparent riff here, DeeAnna is unmarried), the sudden re-branding of oater star Hobie Doyle (a wonderful Alden Ehrenreich) as a romantic lead and most dismaying, the abrupt disappearance of matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the studio’s upcoming prestige epic, titled, but of course, Hail, Caesar!; like Ben-Hur, the phony movie includes the subtitle A Tale of the Christ.
It’s an appealing log line, yet the film fails to compellingly build upon its premise and truly capitalize on its wealth of on-screen talent. The longer the film plays out, the more apparent it sadly becomes that there’s not much “there” there. Without an expansive sense of momentum, most of the pleasures of the movies are of the artificial variety – the sets, camera work and costuming are of the highest order, thankfully. Because the Coens are such inventive and unusual talents, the scenery is almost always admirable but the narrative is never quite stable enough to get under your skin; it’s all glossy tricks with little substance or meat to chew on. Which makes it all the more strange that amidst all the froth, the Coens embroider their original screenplay with asides on religion, politics and sexual quid quo pro.
Odder still, is the overall tone of the piece. Despite the rough exterior of this fictionalized and Coen-ized take on Mannix, he’s a true believer of the Hollywood dream factory. His methodical bullying of stars (coupled with a feverish sense of control of both their on an off-screen personae; a specialty of the era) and manipulation of the press (embodied here by Tilda Swinton in a dual Hedda Hooper-inspired turn as gossip mavens Thora and Thessaly Thacker) are played in service of an almost idealized alternate reality of Hollywood at the time. Conversely, the through-line in Whitlock’s disappearance underlines the destructive nature of this institution and why it should be severed altogether (as it soon would). As such, it becomes unclear whether Hail, Caesar! is intended as a valentine to old-Hollywood or an indictment of it. It can’t really be both, and the difference is stark considering the Coens previously skewered the studio system with their savage 1991 dark comedy Barton Fink and essayed the ambivalent divide of art versus commerce so thoughtfully in their last feature, the terrific Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
Still, even if Hail, Caesar! may necessitate the usage of the dreaded “minor Coens” descriptor, there’s some nifty little moments that pop even if the whole can’t quite sustain itself. The performers, assembled with a nicely balanced mixture of both Coen regulars and neophytes, are nearly all engaging and given hilarious names (Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Lorenz gets the same laugh a handful of times). Also, it’s difficult to completely dismiss work that will devote an entire sequence to an On The Town-esque musical number featuring Channing Tatum (essaying a Gene Kelly-like song and dance man) and a crew of sailors crooning a gleefully silly ditty called “Dames” – Johansson gets a separate musical number and is peaches as well. On the technical side, Hail, Caesar! is consistently alluring – Jess Gonchor’s production design vividly calls back to the old studio system days while also joyfully heightening it, as does Mary Zophres’ beautiful and eclectic costumes and Roger Deakins’ inventive cinematography further proves he’s one of the best in the business. What it says about showbiz may not be known, but Hail, Caesar! exemplifies its showmanship.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
If only you could whistle the sets. While sprightly produced and gamely performed by an all-star ensemble cast (funnily, it’s Alden Ehrenreich, the least-known of the troupe, who handily deserves most valuable player honors), Hail, Caesar! can’t quite reach the sum of its parts. Part of this may be the fault that inertia appears to seep in before the Coens are able to wring in their absurdest pay-off. A bigger setback arises fairly early on, however, on the overall tone of this sunny but strange old-Hollywood romp: Are the Coens trying to make a love letter to the waning days of the studio system or gently skewer the soulless factory that built it?