“Hail, Caesar!” Movie Review


     There’s a certain level of expectation that comes with a film which boasts having been written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”, “No Country For Old Men”).  The Coen Brothers have, over a career that began with their 1984 debut “Blood Simple”, continually maintained a unique creative standard that has differentiated their work from the mainstream and has put them in a category all their own.  Their new film, “Hail, Caesar”, certainly continues that trend, but also seems more appropriate for a niche audience, as its uneven story and overly goofy characters likely won’t appeal to those who remember the brothers for more audience friendly fare such as “True Grit”.  Instead, the Coen’s have concocted something more along the lines of their breakout comedy hit “Raising Arizona”, but may have failed to create a single character memorable enough to be compared to say, the Dude in “The Big Lebowski”.

     The story centers around the Golden Age of filmmaking in the 1950s, when large massive productions were the standard long before extras were replaced by CGI stand ins.  A fictitious production studio called Capital Pictures has embarked on their biggest project of the year, a Roman Bible epic called “Hail, Caesar!”, which features megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in the lead role.  In the initial sequence, we see hundreds of Roman soldiers marching within life size sets built at actual locations, similar to such classic films as “Ben-Hur” or “The Ten Commandments”.  On top of it all is a studio producer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer of sorts who is responsible for ensuring all of the company’s big projects stay on track and the actors and directors who make them are kept in line.  Eddie is essentially the establishment representative in the story, so you know any presumptive antagonist will likely try to buck the system in some way, causing Eddie to swoop into action.

     Shortly after shooting a scene for “Hail, Caesar!” (the film within the film), Baird heads back to his trailer and is followed by two extras from the set who have apparently spiked his wine.  So much so that Baird passes out and is ultimately kidnapped and held for ransom.  The note Eddie receives indicates a dollar figure of $100,000 with the assailants referring to themselves as The Future.  So what we have is a major movie star who has disappeared and a director who still hasn’t shot the film’s most pivotal scenes.  That’s the general set up, but the Coen’s populate the in-between with plenty of other sub plots and an endless supply of colorful characters.  There’s Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who stumbles his way into the kidnapping plot and also shares the film’s funniest scene with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) when the two jostle over the proper way to say his lines.  Tap dancing extraordinaire Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) struts his stuff in an all out dance sequence taking place in a bar full of sailors, and he also somehow figures into the overall scheme.  DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress with an image problem (she has a child out of wedlock) of whom Eddie must constantly come up with ways to smooth over her gossip worthy home life.  And finally, Tilda Swinton shows up at the most inconvenient of times, hounding Eddie as a pair of twins, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, who comb Hollywood for the next juicy story.

     The problem with “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t the characters per se, rather how the Coen’s have chosen to structure their narrative which has an overriding sketch comedy type feel to it.  Scenes involving both Tatum and Johansson seem to have no relevance to the story at all, and the extravagant dance numbers both are involved in add nothing to the proceedings other than achieving some minor amusement and functioning as a colorful pit stop into 1950’s filmmaking.  Even the kidnapping, which is taken surprisingly well by Baird never really feels like a true threat, as he is never in danger and the truth behind those who coordinated the crime harks to the recent 1950’s Hollywood film, “Trumbo”.  Perhaps that is the reason we are seeing such a star studded film made by the Coen Brothers in early February, rather than during awards season as it seems another film beat them to the punch.  

     Where “Hail, Caesar!” excels is the exquisitely detailed production design courtesy of Jess Gonchor (who has worked with the Coen’s on six of their films) and set decorator Nancy Haigh.  The throwback film sets, which were shot on the Warner Brothers lot, take the audience to a time when films were made differently. And the production here spares no expense in ensuring the cameras, lights, and sound equipment are exactly as they were in the 1950s when Hollywood made movies where characters spent the majority of their time on fabulously built sets and their dialogue and acting was the key to the film’s success.  It’s simply how stars were made back then.  Definitely worth mentioning here is also the work Mary Zophres (another frequent collaborator with the Coen’s) has done with the costumes, particularly those the Thacker twins get around in.  It’s truly an extravaganza in the use of color and design that matches perfectly with the period.  If only there was a cohesive story somewhere to be found within all of the glitz and glamour.  GRADE: C+