Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! is the latest unfocused, overstuffed comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading). The story centers on a kidnapping (seriously, fellas, there are other plotlines available for comedies) set during the golden age of Hollywood. Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the head of production at the fictional studio Capitol Pictures. Mannix always has his hands full keeping out of the press all the crazy shenanigans that happen at a typical movie studio in the 1950s. He deals with temperamental directors (Ralph Fiennes), talentless actors (Alden Ehrenreich), pregnant starlets (Scarlett Johansson), and powerful gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, in a hilarious dual role as identical twin sisters working for competing papers).  But when the studio’s biggest box-office draw (George Clooney) disappears, it may be a problem even Mannix can’t solve.

The trouble is, we don’t really care.

The fact that the film lacks any dramatic stakes wouldn’t be that big a deal if this picture were a hilarious, relevant, or loving send-up of old Hollywood—all things it wants to be, and thinks it is. But the film is not particularly funny or pertinent, especially compared to the dozens of similar movies made back in the days when mainstream audiences still felt some connection with the old studio system of yesteryear (from Singing in the Rain, to The Purple Rose of Cairo, to the Coens’ own Barton Fink).

The love of old movies and old Hollywood does come through by way of the beguiling cast. Fiennes scores with subtle brilliance, embodying the frustrations of every cultured European auteur who fled the Nazis only to have to put up with uncouth Americans. Johansson delights as a bawdy Esther Williams-type. Ehrenreich brings unexpected warmth to the role of a B-grade singing cowboy in the mold of Kirby Grant. Clooney lampoons his own screen persona by way of Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Cary Grant. Swinton brilliantly skewers columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons by playing them both as the same desperate, shallow individual. And Channing Tatum steals the movie as a Gene Kelly-esque actor/dancer/choreographer shooting a musical number.

But the picture that contains all these terrific performances is lazy, sloppy, and utterly inconsequential.  Brolin is his usual solid, amusing self; but he’s not enough to hold this movie together. There’s so little substance here it would need to be laugh-out-loud hilarious from start to finish in order to land. Compare the couple of scenes that feature Tatum and Swinton to the rest of the film and you can see why everything else comes up short.

Most frustrating of all are the movie’s visual aspects. Hail, Caesar!  is shot on glorious 35mm film, but the Coens and their peerless cinematographer, Roger Deakins, don’t take advantage of this at all. Though the film is set during 1951, everything looks like it was shot in 2015. Even the films within the film—which cover every genre popular during the postwar period, from widescreen biblical epics, to singing cowboy westerns, to MGM water ballets, to sophisticated drawing room dramas imported from Broadway, to musicals about dancin’ sailors singin’ about dames,—look that way, too. What a missed opportunity to play around with formats, film stocks, lenses, aspect ratios, etc. Why make a comedy set in this milieu if not to have this type of fun?

I assume a film like this must, at least partially, be aimed at people who love and know about this era in film history. But those of us who do will have difficulty laughing at jokes that are anachronistic or just technically false. A prime example is Frances McDormand’s cameo as a chain-smoking film editor. She looks and acts just right, and her scene should be a highlight of the movie. But aside from the performance and costume, every single thing about her scene is totally wrong. She shows Brolin a rough cut with finished titles, even though finished titles would never be part of a rough cut. And the climax of the scene involves a bit of physical comedy that results in her Moviola editing machine jamming and burning a hole in the film. But the low wattage bulbs of Moviolas don’t burn holes in celluloid when the film jams the way high wattage projector bulbs do. If stopping the film on a single frame resulted in burning a hole in the print it would defeat the entire purpose of an editing machine. Am I being a stickler for wanting jokes specific to a film’s subject matter to actually make sense? I don’t think so. Good satire comes from specificity. 

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan, and Eric Fellner

Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

With: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Tom Musgrave, David Krumholtz, Greg Baldwin, Patrick Carroll, Clancy Brown, John Bluthal, Alex Karpovsky, Aramazd Stepanian, Allan Havey, Robert Pike Daniel, Robert Picardo, Ian Blackman, Geoffrey Cantor, Christopher Lambert, Jeff Lewis, Wayne Knight, Dolph Lundgren, and the voice of Michael Gambon

Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editing: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Music: Carter Burwell

Runtime: 106 min
Release Date: 05 February 2016
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1