Hail Ethan, Hail Joel, Hail Caesar
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehenreich Running Time: 106 minutes
There are moments in Hail, Caesar! where it really feels like the Coen Brothers have put together their greatest comedy ever, a broad and absurd send up of Old Hollywood filled with classic cinema references and thinly-veiled analogues that brings all the age’s greatest fears of decadent miscreants and godless Communists to bear, a non-stop circus that needs some sense slapped into it by studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) But while Hail, Caesar! is always beautiful to look at and often hilarious to listen to, the day in the life of Mannix we see in the film has too much going on to add up to a satisfying conclusion, or even the unsatisfying conclusions typically favoured by the filmmakers.
Despite what the might be suggested by the advertising, Hail, Caesar is not just about Mannix’s attempts to reclaim Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) after he’s kidnapped from the set of an overwrought Biblical epic, also called Hail Caesar, by nebbish Communist screenwriters. Instead we follow a whole host of characters around the Capitol Pictures studio, as Mannix tries to keep everybody happy, like a gruffer Liz Lemon. Whether it’s slotting simple minded cowboy actor Hobie Doye (Alden Ehrenreich) into a foppish melodrama directed by Ralph Fiennes, fussing up a storm, or attempting to keep synchronised swimmer/actress DeeAnna Moran’s reputation intact and her pregnancy secret, it seems there’s no end to the various goings on at Capitol Pictures. And while that does lead to various entertaining set pieces, with the film covering a wild range of the early 50’s Hollywood oeuvre (a subtext-laden dance number with Channing Tatum’s Not Gene Kelly is a particular highlight), it’s also part of the film’s problem.
Hail, Caesar! pulls itself in every direction with these various storylines and ends up giving itself too much to do. Some of the various elements work much better than others and its simply not possible for them all to get a good payoff in the end. For economical filmmakers/writers like the Coens, having various plot threads conclude with Eddie Mannix just explaining what happened off-camera is a real failing. Mannix himself contributes to the sense that the film is incomplete, as Coen protagonists go he’s not quite the hapless schmuck and not quite the unrelenting folksy type. He’s kind of a religious man who takes his job seriously? It seems that the film wants to use Mannix to say something about religion, or Hollywood, or maybe both, but it never comes together into anything definitive. At its worst, Hail, Caesar! comes across oddly aloof towards its subject matter, and the way that Mannix flits in and out of the film doesn’t help in that regard. Yet another plot thread is Mannix contemplating a job offer in the relative normalcy of the Lockheed Corporation. Is Hollywood fun escapism or a frivalous, stupid waste of time? Mannix seems more sure of the answer than Hail, Caesar! does itself.
That’s not to say there isn’t a good amount to enjoy here; when you’re as prolific as the Coens, even your mid-tier efforts are of a good quality. The film’s over-stuffedness manages to keep the laughs ratio pretty high if nothing else, with broad but sly humour at the expense of quarreling clergymen, pretentious prestige picture dialogue, good ol’ cowboys and more, there’s a high chance most audience members will find something to laugh at, even as other jokes prove to be too inside baseball for them. The cinematography of Roger Deakins is another highlight, replicating the look of the era with lush primary colours, and using more vibrant primary colours the bigger the visual. Deep-cut cinema fans are sure to be in for a treat with the films visual style and the fun of recreating the old tropes of American films, but for the more casual viewer, Hail, Caesar! may prove more of a struggle.