2 out of 5
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Had Hail, Caesar! been directed / written by someones other than Joel and Ethan Coen, it’d likely get a pass as an acceptably entertaining bit of film. It looks good; it’s stocked with a bevy of great actors; it’s got an amusingly cheeky sense of humor. You’d call it Coen-esque. But it’s also pretty empty; and whether or not that’s a meta commentary on films and the making of films, that, in combination with it actually being directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, encourages an extra layer of scrutiny – the course of being notable creatives who’ve delivered several genius flicks over the years – and makes it rather weird that it only ever feels “Coen-esque” and not quite like a Coen Brothers movie. When it gets around to making something of a point in its last 10 or 15 minutes, it ends up driving home the rather removed nature of the movie, almost to the extent of rubbing it in the viewers’ face. This sounds bad, but it’s suddenly where Hail, Caesar! feels like it actually had a rhyme and reason for being made, and has some teeth; it goes out on a good note. But reflecting back on how the preceding 90 minutes still feel rather pointless – purposefully so – and how much of the movie feels like an affectation instead of something more immersive or thought-provoking ultimately made me flip-flop on that “good note” reaction.
Hail, Caesar! has “head of physical production” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) dealing with the 1,001 day to day issues at Capitol Pictures, which end up covering a range of – essentially – criminal acts which are dusted over with a bright and cheery sense of innocuousness that matches the 1950s Hollywood setting. Inbetween clandestine meetings and dodging interview questions from twin reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), Mannix makes time – checking his watch, a recurring image – for confessions in Church about sneaking cigarettes against his wife’s wishes, and also for viewing dailies / shootings of various films, which are presented to us in a diegetic style, as viewers watching movies within a movie, establishing something of a pantomimed tone; there’s also a narrator (Michael Gambon) popping in, rather unnecessarily, in case the overly cheeky style isn’t enough.
Some side stories involving cowboy-to-drama star Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) and a controversy-spangled actress (Scarlett Johansson) take up Mannix’s day, while we eventually circle back around to the kidnapping of actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), which sounds like it’d be a fairly involving plot point, but is treated with the same light-handed, comical touch as the rest of the flick; most initially assume Whitlock is just on one of his regular benders.
All of these actors are great, and there are some fantastically dazzling dance / choreography numbers with Johansson, and Channing Tatum, but the way the various threads and stars connect together again feels more like a forced Coen-ism than an organic way for the movie to come together; its hokey-pokey sensibility is there because it was designed to be there; its odd inclusions – like a scene with a Russian submarine – are there because there needed to be odd inclusions in order to keep this all in line with the type of movie that’s being made. And then, towards the end, when – via narrator; or via in-the-movie-in-a-movie character dialogue – we’re brought to question the nature of films, and why they’re made, it’s justified as an urge – as something that must be done. Which is an interesting point of view, and especially one for such storied creators as the Coens, but it just rings hollow at the end of Hail, Caesar!, and doesn’t actually justify – beyond, again, meta thinkings that we could lean way in to – the movie’s general hollowness.