Every year that the Coen Brothers release a new movie, I treat it like an event. The duo’s glorious, genre-busting brand of filmmaking has made them one of the best auteurs working today, and they surprise me time and time again for how well they mash certain genres together to tell stories that are usually anything but normal. Their idiosyncratic sense of humor and pristine attention to detail for various time periods have been the most consistently great trademarks in their filmography, which is why I was so hyped for their newest feature, Hail, Caesar!
Set during the 1950s — aka the Golden Age of the Hollywood film industry — the film focuses on the ins and outs of the fictional studio, Capitol Pictures, which was previously featured in the brothers’ masterful 1940s dark dramedy, Barton Fink. The man keeping a close eye on the studio’s latest productions is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive who also acts as a “fixer” for big name stars working on the newest slate of films. His most important task is overseeing the production of the historical epic, Hail, Caesar!, which is headlined by renowned actor, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). During a break from filming, Whitlock is kidnapped by a mysterious group named The Future, and this thrusts Mannix into collecting a $100,000 ransom to rescue him.
One can assume that story sounds simple, but Hail, Caesar! is much more than just the mystery comedy it’s been marketed as. In fact, there are a multitude of subplots that coincide with the ransom narrative, all of which take up more or less screen time than the billed premise. On the whole, the overall narrative is very overstuffed. Part of the blame is on the Coen Brothers’ writing, because the script feels like a solid first draft that still needed rewrites to conclude which subplots should remain in the final cut. The other culprit is the marketing team since nearly every preview of the film appeared to only highlight the Whitlock kidnapping plot.
Furthermore, with the surprisingly large amount of stories taking place throughout, the movie quite often made me question what its main goal was. It wasn’t until the final half hour where I came to the assumption that more than anything else, it is a grand tribute to the classical Hollywood film era. This also inferred that the Eddie Mannix character functioned as a tour guide for how he goes about his job with properly managing not just movie productions, but also maintaining a firm grasp on the public image of actors that relish their eccentric personal lives.
Despite how many problems I had with the film’s inconsistent narrative, the Coens still manage to make the overall experience quite entertaining. The dialogue is always engaging, and the comedy generally hits hard on the belly laugh scale. In addition, every set piece is rich in period detail and complemented sufficiently well by Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Deakins showers most of the film’s scenes in gold color schemes, which smartly function as a literal visual metaphor to the film’s Golden Age Hollywood setting, especially in terms of the grand studio sets that introduce the professional work of several key actor characters.
As far as the acting goes, there isn’t one weak link in the star-studded cast. Brolin is great at playing it straight as Mannix, which was interesting concerning the fact that his character interacts with others that are as oddball as they get. Everyone ranging from Clooney to a hugely entertaining Channing Tatum also give it their all in their roles. However, there are certain characters I wished had more screen time, namely those played by Tatum, Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton.
However, there is one performance that deserves to be singled out amongst the ensemble, and that’s Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an offbeat star of B-grade westerns that hilariously struggles to convincingly act in a more dramatic picture. The introduction of his character is suitably perfect for both his wacky personality and the movie genre he specializes in, and Ehrenreich carries those traits in a spot-on fashion to channelling Hobie’s weakness in serious acting. The scene where he films his “serious scene” is the high point of the film’s comedic moments, and the comedic timing between he and Fiennes had me laughing real hard.
In the end, Hail, Caesar! is the most mixed I’ve been on a Coen Brothers movie since Burn After Reading (which still deserves a second viewing). The passion the duo have for the Golden Age Hollywood era of movies is quite admirable, but they should’ve paid just as much attention to reworking the script for a more consistent narrative flow. Nonetheless, only they can mostly get away with that issue for the entertainment value they ultimately deliver. Although this is a lesser Coen Brothers type of film, it’s still an amusing outing for the fans of their work.