By Yufeng K.
Watching the trailer for Hail, Caesar!, it is easy to assume that the Coen brothers’ latest feature-length film is another one of their crime capers, a la the pseudo-spy thriller Burn After Reading or the seminal Fargo.
Set in 1950s Hollywood, the premise of the film, or so one expects, is the kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, who is always fun to watch as the bumbling buffoon.
The central character, however, is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, the de facto fixer of fictional production company Capitol Pictures. And it is up to Mannix to engineer Whitlock’s rescue from the hands of a mysterious group who call themselves “The Future”.
But like most of the Coens’ oeuvre, Hail, Caesar! is a movie that subverts expectations, although this time to mixed results.
Contrary to what the trailer and all of the pre-release buzz suggests, Hail, Caesar! is one part satire and one part loving tribute to film-making and the film industry. In keeping to their screwball roots, the Coens pay homage while mining various tropes for some great laughs.
In his role as fixer, Mannix not only has to deal with Whitlock’s kidnapping. He also has to resolve a myriad of other crises that form the film’s subplots, all of which serve as a platform for the Coens to run through the gamut of classic Hollywood genres in a series of vignettes, taking the audience on a tour of the ins and outs of the film industry while lampooning it at the same time.
These vignettes are incredibly fun to watch, not least because of an expectedly brilliant cast.
In Alden Ehrenreich, who puts in a great performance as Hobie Doyle, we get a cowboy adept at rope tricks (cleverly used in a subtle spaghetti western reference) but struggles after the studio decides to reinvent him as a dramatic actor.
In one of the funniest scenes of the movie, Doyle repeatedly fumbles with his elaborate lines and complicated stage directions which results in a hilarious exchange between him and director Laurence Laurentz, played effortlessly by Ralph Fiennes.
Scarlett Johansson’s character quips in a Jersey accent, does some aquabatics, showcasing the beautiful cinematography by frequent Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, and is pregnant out of wedlock.
Channing Tatum, whose character takes an absurdly dark turn at the end of the film, sings and tap dances in one of the film’s more elaborate set pieces, possibly making up for the lack of musicals amongst Hollywood’s recent offerings.
Tilda Swinton plays a pair of twin sisters who are also rival gossip columnists, Michael Gambon does some great voiceover work as an omniscient narrator, and there is a criminally short cameo from the always-delightful Frances McDormand as a film editor.
It is quite clear that everyone involved enjoyed themselves while making this film (Swinton described working with the Coens as “a Hollywood holiday”) and that translates to an almost exuberant viewing experience as well.
The problem with Hail, Caesar!, however, is that the punchlines do not always land. The satire is at times so subtle, it plays a little too straight, which is a fatal flaw given that all the characters embody one stereotype or another and it can be hard to tell what exactly the Coens are poking fun at.
With the size of the cast, the film can also feel bloated at times (Jonah Hill, who is on the main billing, appears in just one scene). Trying to keep track of who is who often causes jokes to fly by unnoticed. Over a 106 minute runtime, the side plots are stretched thin, and in the end, they get tied up in an all-too-convenient bow that is too neat.
The kidnapping turns out to be a farcical Marxist plot that sadly also peters out, with a funny but ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.
Like the eponymous film within the film, Hail, Caesar! is ambitious.
It is a send-up of the silver screen, of celebrity gossip, of religion and of the Red Scare, all while trying to invoke the same movie magic that sees Mannix reject a lucrative offer from arms dealers Lockheed, and, perhaps serving as an analogue for the Coens themselves, continuing in the ‘circus’ that is the film industry.
But just as Whitlock’s Roman centurion kills the mood when he trips up at the end of a rousing monologue during the biblical epic’s climax, the Coen brothers’ latest feature feels deflated.
Like some of their less accessible work (A Serious Man comes to mind), perhaps repeated viewing will give this densely packed film more justice.