Irving Berlin’s “There’s no business like show business” came to mind a lot during Hail, Caesar! Because there is sure as hell “no people like show people”. Let us be honest here, the Coen Brothers’ latest could be about a turkey doing mathematics and it would still be considered a must-see, simply because of the track record of this writing/directorial duo. Over the course of their career, the Coens have enthralled, amused and bewildered and have seemingly enjoyed doing so. And after crimes in remote places, a writer’s internal struggle, a John Wayne remake and a dude’s losing battle to leave his rug unsoiled, the Coen Brother’s latest work tackles the Hollywood system. Crammed with more A-Listers than an Oscars after-party and more pizzazz than a magazine shoot, Hail, Caesar! Seems worthy of that exclamation mark in its title but is it? Well, kind of...
Set at the perceived height of the Hollywood studio system, in the face of a challenging phase ahead for the industry. Capitol Pictures’ “Fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works hard to ensure that the dirty laundry of the stars remains unaired. His day is business as usual, with a pregnancy problem, leading man difficulties and the call of an “easier” career but something unexpected happens, as megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney)- the lead in a new historical religious epic called Hail, Caesar!- is abducted and held to ransom. Can Eddie fix all this, amidst the mounting pressure and flaring gaze of the press? Reviewing Hail, Caesar! Is a task in itself because what we have here is a film that is unfunny but smart, unevenly toned but brilliantly acted and one that will appeal to as many as it will annoy.
The Coens have proved, with every passing film, that win or lose they always mange to provoke a response and with their latest work, they have done it again. Hail, Caesar! Is a film that was heavily promoted as a screwball satire but despite the odd outrageous ego or jab at this flamboyant era, this is a practically laugh-free film and it is almost deliberately the case. The trailers depicted the brothers’ trademark balanced blend of genres but in this instance, their lavish feature bears more to a structured, character-led, Drama than a pure satire. This is at once disappointing and admirable and a film that will pick out its audiences from the masses and reward them, while it will frustrate just as many others…and has. This is not a terrible film, far from it, but it is an unexpected result and tells more a serious story of the mounting pressure of cold war paranoia on American culture, with a wonderfully understated comment on the cynical view of the movies, in the face of television and real world advances.
The fact that it is pretty much humourless at times and ironically comes with the same baggage as the overstuffed and aggrandized movies it depicts, is a bit of a disappointment it must be said. The Coens usually to keep their tone in check but their screenplay is crammed with ideas and meaning but forgets to keep a steady pace, with some randomly assembled and drawn out sequences within. This being said the production design is spot on, with some fantastically staged sequences evoking the heyday of musicals and biblical/historical event pictures. The hysteria of Hollywood gossip is well conjured and the directing, while not up to their best efforts, does render some brilliant moments. The menagerie of stars results in an overcrowded film of many narratives (many that don’t go anywhere) but it is a film that, while messy, maintains the eye…much like its central movie-in-a-movie.
Brolin is excellent as real-life figure Mannix, who is an assertive presence and anchors the film. Clooney is also fun as the bewildered silver screen star Whitlock, while Ralph Fiennes is very underused but scene stealing as revered auteur Laurence Laurentz who, surrounded by his cast of luvvies, is a joy to watch, as his character voices his dismay at casting choices and/or on-set mishaps. And to that point, the film’s real high point is Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy picture star Hobie Doyle, with his strong accent and playful mood, he is perhaps the film’s wandrin’ star! In fact all around, the performances of a high caliber with Channing Tatum unleashing his inner Gene Kelly and Scarlett Johansson mastering her own answer to Ester Williams. Sadly the likes of Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun and Tilda Swinton as both rival gossip mag columnist twin sisters Thora and Thessaly, feel shortchanged in on and off roles, as does Jonah Hill, who is in the film all of a minute.
Yet, for its many flaws and annoying shortcomings, you get the feeling that this was all an intentionally assembled play on the frantic nature of the system, at a very unsettled time. Or just to play the audience. Unfortunately for all the brains on display, the performances and the production, cannot rescue the screenplay from a problematic tone, dragging moments and a lack of comic crackle. Still, for the right audience, this film will be a uniquely wrapped joy and either an ode to or parody of (depending on your view) this bygone era of movies and their making in post-war Hollywood. Hail, Caesar! Is not the Coens' best or worst work, it is a purposely lavish look at the 50s Hollywood system and the paranoia of the time, both of which admittedly have been done before. Not funny at all but then, not really meant to be (the trailers are highly misleading), it is a fascinatingly flawed picture, which is enjoyable at times but fuzzy. A film some will love and some will hate, while others will sit somewhere in the middle of disappointment and admiration. Hail, Caesar? Maybe more of a respectful nod perhaps?
HAIL, CAESAR! / CERT: 12A / DIRECTORS & SCREENPLAY: JOEL & ETHAN COHEN / STARRING: GEORGE CLOONEY, JOSH BROLIN, ALDEN EHRENREICH, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, RALPH FIENNES, CHANNING TATUM, FRANCES MCDORMAND, TILDA SWINTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW