Hail, Caesar Review

Posted: June 28, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

hailcaesarposter

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

The Coen Brothers have always been respected auteurs, but even by their standards, these last few years have been extremely successful artistically. No Country for Old Men is widely considered to be a modern classic, Burn After Reading is an excellent application of their comedic sensibilities that boasts a ton of laughs, A Serious Man is an interesting little character study with an unexpected narrative, True Grit is a prime example of escapist filmmaking that improves on the original film in every way. The capper to this amazing streak was Inside Llewyn Davis, the seemingly simple and modest film which is also one of their most rewarding and fascinating efforts made with the technical precision and wit that has defined much of their work. That’s five major works in just six years and it seemed for a while that the Coens were unstoppable. However their streak had a major snag with the release of their latest film, Hail, Caesar!. The film received a questionable February release date (historically a dumping ground for studios, though there are exceptions) and reviews were more mixed than the Coen’s previous efforts. Don’t get me wrong, Hail, Caesar! does sit at a respectable 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, but there seemed to be a lot more negativity and disappointment, and even the film’s positive reviews rarely evoked the same sense of praise their last few films had garnered. I’d like to say that Hail, Caesar! overcome any of my doubts and continues the Coens great success of late, but sadly I do see this as something of a stumble.

Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production for Capitol Studios. Essentially, Eddie’s job boils down to fixing tough situations, mostly managing the stars at Capitol and downplaying scandals. Most of the film is set over a single day which depicts Mannix doing just that. Some of his tasks include handling the pregnancy of actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), whose lack of a husband would spell disaster for her and her series of highly successful mermaid pictures. Another subplot looks at the forced inclusion of Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a costume drama, much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). However Mannix most pressing case involves the disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the studio’s biggest prestige picture, Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ. With limited time and an influx of smaller problems, Mannix must get Whitlock back to finish the film and keep business running smoothly at Capitol Pictures, all while contemplating an offer to leave the film business entirely for a more secure and leisurely career.

If A Serious Man was a character study steeped in Jewish culture and Inside Llewyn Davis a character structure employing a circular, Buddhist like structure, than one might say Hail, Caesar is also about personal struggle through a certain spiritual perspective, this time Christianity. It’s no coincidence that the fictional “Hail, Caesar” the studio is working on is a biblical epic about a soldier coming to a religious revelation involving Christ. More importantly, the film’s beginning and ending both feature crucial moments with Mannix at confession and there are other scenes with Mannix professing a confusion of faith (albeit in an indirect way). Perhaps most tellingly, Mannix’s devotion to Capitol Pictures is framed as a very religious commitment. Mannix is not in love with his work in the movie business, he simply believes it should be done because it is the right thing to do. Capitol Pictures provides an important service and is good to its people, and thus their work must be done even if it is hard on Mannix himself. There’s certainly a parallel there to men of faith who dedicate themselves to what they believe even if at personal cost. It’s also worth noting that Mannix boss in the film is never seen and while Mannix questions some of his choices, he always obeys in the end, even seemingly deifying his boss in a scene late in the film.

I bring all of this material up because I think the Coens are deliberately trying to explore elements of Christianity and there is some interesting material in that regard, but I don’t think the spiritual elements resonated as thoroughly as in the aforementioned Coen brothers films. For one thing, while those films had some comedic and (in the case of A Serious Man) even absurdist elements, they ultimately had a serious conviction at their center which made the struggles palpable. Hail, Caesar! pushes the absurdity to such a ridiculous degree that I was never able to really invest myself into the film on any serious level. This is most clear in the Whitlock subplot, which turns out to be a kidnapping plot by a secret group of Hollywood screenwriters who have converted to communism and have attempted to indoctrinate America subliminally through their films. There’s the kernel of a neat idea there, but it never amounts to anything substantial and mostly comes off as silly nonsense. However I think the real reason the Christian elements, and really Mannix’s entire arc, never really come through is due to a lack of focus. Though Mannix is unambiguously the film’s main character, he is frequently cast aside as the Coens indulge in one of their many subplots and side characters. Mannix himself never gets to stand out as his story is swallowed by the rest of the film, resulting in the conclusion of his arc feeling forced and unearned. I think it would have been wise to eliminate the kidnapping plot altogether and focus more thoroughly on Mannix, specifically his struggles as he deals with the various problems at Capitol.

While I do think the various subplots of Hail, Caesar! do cannibalize each other there is still some fun to be found in parts. Generally speaking, I think the film is very well cast, with George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Alden Ehrenreich all being very believable as the types of 1950s stars they are cast in. Ralph Fiennes also does great work with very little screen time as the Laurence Laurentz, the director of a costume drama trying to get a subdued and delicate performance from a Western star with a thick Texas accent. In fact I’d say the funniest scene in the film is of Laurentz directing Ehrenreich’s Doyle on set. So there’s definitely pieces here I enjoyed, but that too is made frustrating by the fact that none of these pieces ever come together. Most of the subplots are either abandoned or just end in an extremely unsatisfactory way. This, coupled with the lack of satisfaction from the main character’s journey, leads to the whole film just feeling empty. Hail, Caesar! plays less like a movie and more as simply a collection of scenes. The frustrating thing is I can see a lot I like in those scenes. The Coens humour does come through at times, the actors collected are really tight, and it was even fun at points to simply see classic Hollywood recreated so lovingly. At the end of the day though, Hail, Caesar! never comes together and I can’t really endorse that.

D+

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