It’s no secret that I consider myself a Coen Brothers fan. Admittedly, not every one of their films knocks the cinematic ball out of the park (I’m looking squarely at you, True Grit and The Ladykillers), but when they’re on, the results are pure gold. The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading are, in my opinion, the best examples of their ability to tell a compelling story loaded with rich characters and a directorial range that extends from the wackiest of premises to the darkest looks at humanity.
When I learned that Hail, Caesar!, the newest film from this duo, would essentially be a return to their screwball comedy roots seen best in O Brother and The Hudsucker Proxy, you could have completely colored me a chartreuse shade of excited. Knowing that this film would again be a period piece with previous Coen collaborators George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, and even Frances McDormand all making appearances only further served to heighten my interest and highly anticipate the February 5, 2016 release date with reckless abandon.
And then I saw it.
I will start off by saying that this is not a bad movie, not by any means. The Coens remain outstanding directors with an always-great eye for capturing the heightened reality present in every one of their films. The cast delivers solid performances. Josh Brolin’s mustache looks outstanding.
But the premise, if there is one, is all over the map. Set in early 1950s Hollywood, Josh Brolin plays a studio executive who, over the course of 24 hours, must deal with the kidnapping of one of the studio’s top stars, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), fend off twin gossip columnists on the verge of publishing the story of their careers, figure out what to do with a job offer from The Lockheed Corporation and somehow determine how to handle a movie starlet’s (Scarlett Johansson) pregnancy situation, all the while framed by further subplots involving a group of Communists and an inept Western actor thrown into a film outside of his usual genre. Oh, and Channing Tatum shows up.
In previous Coen entries such as Burn After Reading, the multi-plot device works well, largely due to the Bros. knowing when to reign it in and limit the amount of time devoted to each story. In Hail, Caesar!, however, the Bros. seem to be operating off the idea that the key to success is a large cast, with equal screen time for all necessary to ensure a solid film. Some of the plots work well, such a Tilda Swinton’s dual roles as the aforementioned columnists (let it be said that woman can act) and a downright incredible performance by Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the Western actor who must somehow make the transition from a mostly mute stunt-based cowboy to a dramatic thespian with actual lines. Seeing his character attempt to deliver his dialogue and literally stumble onto a movie set have me convinced there’s a bright future for Mr. Ehrenreich, and if that future involves a buddy cop film with New Girl’s Max Greenfield, my ticket will be purchased shortly.
But if a central plot line had to be chosen, it would undoubtedly be that of Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping at the hands of a Communist group known as The Future, the story which attempts to hold the rest together. Unfortunately, Clooney’s take on Whitlock does little to make the Communist premise even the least bit interesting or easy to follow. The same can be said about Johansson’s plot, in which she plays an actress who must conceal her pregnancy with assistance from Brolin and a clerk played by Jonah Hill. Why Hill received star billing in Hail, Caesar! is beyond me, as his five minutes of screen time made me wonder if his future lies in cameos in much larger films, such as his unnecessary role in 2012’s Django Unchained. Did this guy really receive two Academy Award nominations?
Furthermore, if there’s one thing most Coen films can easily rely on, it’s an unforgettable musical moment, such as the performances of “Man of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother and “Please Mr. Kennedy” from their 2014 effort Inside Llewyn Davis. What Hail, Caesar! delivers in this regard is a high-energy number from an old-timey musical in which Channing Tatum plays a sailor who sings, dances and suggestively interacts with a large group of other sailors in a performance right out of Oklahoma!. It’s fun, but nowhere near the memorable level seen in the films mentioned above. Oh, and Tatum’s character also turns out to be a Communist. Yeah, that again.
Hail, Caesar! is Joel and Ethan Coen’s attempt to remind us of the past, while simultaneously staying true to themselves as directors and produce a crowd-pleasing film in the process. Parts of it work well and would have more than likely been better suited to their own spin-off, while others serve no other purpose than to make us wish we were seeing more of Hobie Doyle. It’s a bit too crammed full of characters, stories and pointless appearances by actors like Christopher Lambert, who plays the director of Tatum’s character’s film. He was The Highlander. Remember?