By Juan A. Ramirez, news correspondent
It would be tempting to describe “Hail, Caesar!” as the film the Coen brothers have been trying to make all along, but that would be somewhat of an insult to their abilities. Yes, their favorite elements are all there – George Clooney playing a dumb, self-serious businessman not aware of his own ridiculousness and dabs of old Hollywood – but this time, their reach has far exceeded their grasp in a film so wildly uneven that it’s entirely possible to leave the theater wondering if it is a completed motion picture.
The main story spotlights Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” for a major 1950s Hollywood studio, as he attempts to rescue one of his stars (George Clooney) from a mystery kidnapping. Simple enough, it would seem, but the plot is bogged down by several other subplots of varying importance: A doe-eyed western star (Alden Ehrenreich) tries his hand at subtle drama, a pregnant actress (Scarlett Johansson) struggles to reconcile her career with her child’s future, and a group of Communist writers secretly meet in a Malibu beach house. Channing Tatum plays an unusually chipper song-and-dance man.
The scenes linked together like successive set pieces shifting between a live audience’s focus and, in their own terms, were compelling. Each is beautifully and innovatively shot by longtime Coen brothers collaborator, Roger Deakins, and showcases the glorious ‘50s aesthetic of the day through a modern lens. The script, by the brothers Joel and Ethan, proves they have not lost their incisive comedic touch, especially in an early scene featuring a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Greek Orthodox priest trying to apply a movie pitch to their respective religions.
Viewed as individual scenes, the film stands as a highlight reel of the Coen brothers’ talent but fails to take off as a whole picture.
If the purpose of all these episodic vignettes is to show how involved Mannix is in his busy career, it could have easily been expressed and done away with in a few minutes. Instead, the Coen brothers choose to follow each unnecessary plot thread down until they are out of ideas, leaving us with a mess of well-constructed, well-executed set pieces, like Tatum’s tap-dancing career and Johansson’s aquatic spectacles as an actress, that the audience doesn’t really care about.
None of this is to say that the film is not entertaining, which it truly is. Despite its narrative and structural shortcomings, the film keeps itself from drowning in its many ideas by remaining thematically compelling, having the audience genuinely wonder what will happen next. The actors are all committed enough to their roles to save this from being another tongue-in-cheek hipster mess.
The cast gives the film its vitality, and the constant celebrity-spotting fits well within the Hollywood setting. Never mind Jonah Hill appearing only in one, arguably unnecessary scene. Casting choices like this only fuel a compulsion to keep watching, no matter how much the film unravels with its unsteady allusions to religion, politics, ideology and pop culture. Other performances remind us of the Coen brothers’ ability to draw out the best in actors, as evinced in two wildly comedic turns by Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, known to play more straight-shooting characters, or in Ehrenreich’s innocent young cowboy.
As a major studio release, “Hail, Caesar!” mirrors its own plot – a production gone overboard, a cast too large for one fixer to wrangle and a mess of scenes that somehow transcends the sum of its parts.
Photo Courtesy Universal Pictures