It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.
For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.
Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.
It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things. As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.
It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly. He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another. That’s Hollywood, for you! And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.
In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with. His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR!
Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.
HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments. Some of them work, while others don’t. For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic. Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.
Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama. The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.
The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.
But just as many scenes misfire. Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.
While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic. They’re just sort of there.
Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here. His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.
And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role. He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him. While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around. Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played. The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.
You can’t really fault the actors. They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.
I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.
By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!
Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver. It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.
And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together. I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared. Clooney’s got that kind of timing.
The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.
HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title. Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.