Hail, Caesar, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen—the most prolific and eclectic filmmakers of this, or maybe any, generation—features a surprising number of parallels to the Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Like Tarantino’s latest bloodfest, the movie starts with an image of Jesus on the cross, plays an early scene of violence against women for a shock laugh, and ends with the message that the lies we tell ourselves about what our lives might mean is far more important than any actual meaning.
The Coen’s movie centers on Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer”, tasked with keeping contracted movie stars in line. Mannix was a real guy, and this really was his job, but the characters and situations in Hail, Caesar are fiction (we assume—though perhaps, in a reverse Fargo situation, names have been changed to protect the guilty). But while this world is rife for exploration and parody, the Mannix of the film, as played by John Brolin, just isn’t very interesting.
Like many of their movies, most notably A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, and even the goofy Burn After Reading before it, Hail, Caesar is a parable—a story that reveals meaning. But all of those movies featured engaging characters and situations. So even if, in the end, the meaning of the parable was the lack of any real meaning in life, you were still carried along in the story by characters—and actors—who were resonant. For all of the genuinely smart and interesting political and social points made in Hail, Caesar, there’s just nothing engaging about it. It’s a flat movie—a boring movie even.
The Coens have made boring movies before, but what’s most surprising is that the Coens, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, their longtime collaborator, have made a film that is so flat visually. Why so many static shots? Why so many A-B-A-B shots? Even if the Coens are attempting a visual reference to the films of the 50’s, they also provide proof, in the very examples that they parody here, that those films did more with the camera than the Coens are sixty years later.
Certainly, outside of Brolin, none of the actors are flat, but almost all of them are hammy. Channing Tatum showcases his impressive footwork as song and dance man Burt Gurney, even if his performance veers too close to gay stereotypes, and Frances McDormand is fun in a brief role as a film editor who nearly chokes on her own scarf. Tilda Swinton is fine as that one character that she always plays in these sorts movies (even if that one character, in this case, is a pair of twins). But the real find is Alden Ehrenreich as cowboy film hero Hobie Doyle, whose struggle with a studio-forced image change provides the movie with its only sustained laugh—a showdown with director Ralph Fiennes over proper pronunciation. Like Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Daivs, Ehrenreich is a relative newcomer who should break out after his performance here.
In the movie, Mannix struggles to keep a gaudy Biblical epic going when its star, Baird Whitlock, played with overbearing smugness by George Clooney (who seemingly comes by it naturally) is kidnapped by an underground cell of Communist writers. This allows Hail, Caesar to explore systems of belief in general, and all of the silly rules and restrictions that we place on top of something as simple, and fragile, as faith. The movie is as prickly about these institutions as you would expect from filmmakers who have managed to sell Hollywood studios on at least four movies about how movies are about nothing. It’s a deeply cynical movie, much in line with Burn After Reading. It’s likely that your response to that movie will determine your reaction to this one.
The one thing the Coens do not appear to be cynical about is their love of the movies themselves. Some of the most interesting sequences in Hail, Caesar are its reproductions of classic cinema and further, as the camera pulls back from the action to capture the people capturing the action—the sets coming together, the cameras moving into place. The Coens are definitely fascinated with this piece of history; they’ve just not given the audience reason to be fascinated with this story.
The Fixer’s job is to create a story, an easily digestible fiction that is then sold to the public. You see this most vividly when Mannix is tasked with explaining away the pregnancy of DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams-type played with gum-popping gloom by Scarlett Johansson. When Moran meets her eventual match, it’s the story of who he is that sells her. You see her face change; you see her start to believe in a different life. This is mirrored in the big final speech for Clooney’s character, where we are hidden from the face of the divine, and focus instead on the reactions of the surrounding crew.
Stories, whether they be a splashy Hollywood epic, the latest ooze to spill from a gossip column, or a piece of folklore that has survived for thousands of years, are how we define ourselves. How did the myth of old Hollywood affect the lives of those who came out of the system? We can’t see Hobie Doyle glaring in disgust at the well-appointed Malibu estate of the Communist underground without being reminded of the type of cowboy conservative, typified by Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, who spent their entire careers chasing the reds—because that was the story that they believed.
As Hail, Caesar invites us to spend all of our time sympathizing with a big-time Hollywood studio, let’s sympathize a bit with Universal. The trailers and commercials for this movie are as vague as humanly possible, and it’s little wonder—what story do you tell about this movie to make it interesting?
Starring: John Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes
Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Running time: 100 minutes