Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: March 4th
While the creators of some of the richest and most memorable characters committed to celluloid, the Coens have never left an awful lot of themselves on the screen. A Serious Man, set in their home state of Minnesota during their formative years came closest, yet still remained distant, putting its lead through a trial of punishments and avoiding opening a door into what it was growing up outside the Twin Cities in the ’60s. Whether they actually like most of their characters, or their audience for that matter, has always been up for debate. Those looking for their opinions on film from their latest, Hail, Caesar!, will be equally as miffed.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, sporting a spiffing Walt Disney moustache) is the head of Capitol Pictures and a fixer for Hollywood stars in the early ’50s. His time is spent watching dailies on Roman epics, westerns and musicals, and mollycoddling their increasingly petulant stars. Over the course of a particularly testing day, his lead on a synchronised swimming pic is with child and without baby daddy, his singing cowboy pratfalls like Agador Spartacus in dress shoes filming a Gatsby-era prestige movie, and the star of his biggest production has been kidnapped by communists.
Talking about the television adaptation of Fargo, the Coens said that they could never get in to TV because they become bored with their characters after two hours. Kings of economy, they’ve excelled under the time constraint, perhaps best in Fargo where Oscar-winning Frances McDormand doesn’t show up until the 30 minute mark of a 90 minute movie. Hail, Caesar!’s major issue is that it’s a very well attended fancy dress party. The Coens use a glut of big names as a shortcut to recreating Hollywood archetypes that are aesthetically satisfying but not much else. Unsurprisingly, it’s the bit players or unknowns who leave the lasting memory, like Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a lasso-tossing bumpkin who spars hilariously with the pompously named Laurence Laurentz (the ever welcome comedic presence of Ralph Fiennes).
While the rolodex casting doesn’t always quite work — particularly a grating Tilda Swinton as twin gossip reporters — some choices are inspired, in particular Channing Tatum as a tap dancing Gene Kelly-type whose “No Dames” song and dance number will make you salivate at the idea of a full Coens’ musical. The movies within a movie are enjoyable in isolation, gorgeously shot in eye-popping technicolour by Roger Deakins, but ultimately derail the main plot and give a pace that sputters along, never fully getting going.
On its surface, it looks as though the intention is to satirise 50s Hollywood but what comes across, perhaps deliberately, is a bashing of their own back catalogue with kidnappings, botched money drops and a goofball George Clooney at its centre. There’s definite more in a subplot about Mannix flirting with leaving the movie business for a desk job at Lockheed that could’ve been explored. Hail, Caesar! is a rare misfire for Joel and Ethan, possibly their worst since The Ladykillers and nothing before that. All that said, it’s worth noting that a Coens’ misfire is still an immensely watchable and enjoyable experience.