Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson
Letter Grade: B-
Hollywood in the early 1950’s was a place of glitz, glamor, and spin. The studios carefully guarded the reputations of their stars and measured every move they made to maximize appeal and profits. It was also an industry overcome by the Red Scare. Somehow, Hail, Caesar!, the newest entry in the Coen Brother’s illustrious oeuvre, is somehow simultaneously about all of this, and none of this.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has a busy life between his days and nights as head of production for Capitol Studios and being the“fixer” of his celebrity’s missteps, all while trying to hide his smoking from his patient wife and going to confession every 27 hours or so. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when one of his starlets (Scarlett Johansson) gets pregnant while unmarried, and the biggest star in Hollywood (George Clooney) is kidnapped off the set of his latest film by a group of Communists, who demand an exorbitant ransom. What follows is a madcap romp through the Golden Age of Hollywood, complete with a dance number that, while silly, would make Gene Kelly himself proud.
At its best moments, Hail, Caesar! is a fun, smart satire of Hollywood and the mentality of the 1950’s. The dialogue sparkles and the one-liners fly quick and land perfectly. The best example of this is the amazing Ralph Fiennes, whose part is small but hilarious. He is easily the best part of the film, even when he is making you question your pronunciation of even the most mundane words.
There is also a charming, laugh-out-loud funny scene where Mannix interrogates a diverse group of religious leaders about the portrayal of Jesus on screen to make sure they will not offend any group.
If these scenes represented the film as a whole, this would be a solid A+ Coen Brothers comedy, and I would be able to wholeheartedly recommend it. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There’s very little drama in this film, and even less depth or actual stakes. This film is so light you can practically see it float. And therein lies the problem. Large chunks of the movie drag between jokes, or anything interesting happening. It’s slightly bloated and over-long for what it is, and this means the ending feels like it’s supposed to mean something to you as an audience member, but it’s impossible to decide what you’re supposed to feel or learn.
There is also annoying voice over narration that adds nothing to your understanding of the plot, and overall just seems tacked-on and pointless. If the writing quality was a little more consistent and sharper throughout, rather than just in brilliant patches, it wouldn’t have been deemed necessary.
Of course, the acting on all levels is great. Everyone nails their roles beautifully, they just don’t add up to anything worthwhile. It feels like a film that wants to say something, but doesn’t quite know what that something is.
If you love old Hollywood, the Coen Brothers, or snappy dialogue, Hail, Caesar! is worth checking out. It’s enjoyable and beautiful to look at, and much of the comedy is genuinely hilarious. But, the jokes is where it stops. It doesn’t go for the throat. It pulls its punches, and never really seems to skewer or pay homage but finds some odd, unsatisfying middle ground. There is no question it is the work of great filmmakers, it just isn’t the best work of the masters. Perhaps from less capable hands, we wouldn’t expect as much and would be willing to accept Hail, Caesar! on its face. But when you are Joel and Ethan Coen, for better or worse, we as an audience demand… just more than this.