As much as I love the Coen Brothers, they have made some turkeys in their time, and I’m afraid Hail, Caesar! is one of them. It’s down there with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. It is a film that thinks it’s very funny, and isn’t.
Hail, Caesar! is set in the 1950s in Hollywood, which the Coens last sent up in Barton Fink twenty-five years ago (to much better effect). In fact, the name of the movie studio, Capitol Pictures, is the same. In this film, the Head of Physical Production, Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is a kind of fixer, solving problems as they pop up. He has a pregnant unmarried star (Scarlett Johannson), a cowboy actor woefully miscast in a romantic drama, and worst of all, the big star of his sandal-and-toga picture has been kidnapped.
Some may call this nostalgia, but I think it’s the opposite. The Coens, unlike Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino or anyone else making homages to the past, really seem to have hated ’50s movies. And why not? None of those Biblical epics were any good, B-movie Westerns of the like seen here were god awful, and those musicals that contrived Esther Williams to somehow get in a swimming pool were ludicrous. In Hail, Caesar!, Hollywood types aren’t dream merchants, they are hucksters, to put it in the words of a line in a great ’50s film, In a Lonely Place, movie-makers are popcorn salesmen.
George Clooney plays the big star who is kidnapped, still in his Roman guardian outfit. He’s been snatched by a group of Communist writers, who want a ransom because they have been screwed by the system. Here’s the first problem–communists usually aren’t in it for the money. The second problem is that the film never mentions the blacklist, where countless lives were destroyed. Using this a plot point is glib and insensitive.
There are numerous subplots, and this is where Hail, Caesar! sinks even further into murky depths. Not that this has any bearing on the movie’s worth, but the trailer implies that Brolin enlists the aid of several other people–including Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as a sophisticated director, and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy star–to help him, but that is not the case. Only Ehrenreich is involved in the plot. The other characters are in brief and inconsequential scenes. I still can’t figure out Johansson’s involvement, except for one masturbation joke. Fiennes is in the scene in which Ehrenreich, a rube, tries to speak like a swell in his scene, a gag that goes on way too long.
Also in the cast is Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-like dancer for a musical number that seems to exist only because the Coens wanted a dance number. I suppose it’s a pleasant diversion, but nothing more.
This idea had been kicking around with the Coens for a decade and it shows. It never really settles on what it’s about. There is an over-arcing theme of religion, as the film-within-the-film is a “Tale of the Christ,” and Brolin is an observant Catholic who can pinpoint his last confession by the hour. But the profundity of the film escaped me.
There are some amusing characters that deserved more, such as Tilda Swinton playing twin sisters and rival gossip columnists. But some scenes are just amazingly flat, such as when where Frances McDormand is an old editor who gets her scarf caught in a viewer. You’d think an old editor would know better not to wear scarfs. There’s also some very lazy writing. At one point a plot point is wrapped up off-screen, when Brolin tells Swinton that he spoke to Fiennes about something and put “two and two together.” We don’t see this scene, and it really is embarrassing how it’s tossed off so amateurishly.
Hail, Caesar! is pretty much a mess. Not funny, and worse than that, boring.