Film review – Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the new film from the Coen Brothers, is a film heavy on nostalgia and authenticity but light on focus to moving along the central plot. It has so many fantastic elements that seeing the final product fall short is a huge disappointment.

The film tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at Capitol Pictures whose job involves firefighting the many problems created by the studio’s roster of stars who seem to have an uncanny ability to mix themselves up in controversy. The studio’s next big film will be Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) will star. However, when a prop wine goblet is spiked by an extra on the set, he is kidnapped by a group of communist scriptwriters called The Future and held to ransom for a then significant total of $100,000, putting pressure on Mannix at a time when he is considering a career change to join the aviation industry with the Lockheed Corporation.

  
It felt at times that the Coen Brothers were so hell bent on fitting in a plethora of big-star cameos that they didn’t care that each time they did so they completely derailed the focus of the story. Take, for example, Frances McDormant’s studio film editor CC Calhoun. Her hammed-up effort is a nice comedy turn introduced at a critical point of the film. She could have easily turned into a key character, but never reappeared and thus there didn’t really seem to be much point to her appearance.

A bigger offender comes in the form of a more significant subplot featuring pregnant star Dee-Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and surety agent Joe Silverman (Jonah Hill). It’s a huge eater of time but in the end resolves itself with little input from Mannix at a time when he is deciding that he needs to stay in the film industry, presumably because he is so critical to it.

Similarly, Channing Tatum, who features as Burt Gurney, gets a great song and dance scene – a real highlight to the film – but is probably only in three scenes in total. The time spent with Johansson and Hill may have been better served with Tatum. Instead, none of the three characters really feel significant enough to elicit the response they could have achieved had more time been spent with them.

  
One character that does end up getting fully fleshed-out is the Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is introduced as a big studio star that has got where he is by his ability to perform massive stunts rather than any of his acting qualities. There are some fun scenes with Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as he tried to get the best out of his acting abilities or lack thereof. Near the end of the film there is some subtle symbolism involving him figuratively lassoing Baird Whitlock and taking him back to the studios from the communists, a nod to the cowboy as an upholder of traditional American values. Whether or not they needed to spend so long in the film emphasising his cowboy skills to set this up is another question, but at least this character takes us on a journey and proves to be critical to the resolution of the story.

At the heart of the story is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, a man who is essentially a fixer for the studio. It is an interesting character and, along with Clooney’s bumbling Whitlock, he carries the film. His climactic scene with Whitlock underlines why his decision was made – he sees the communist issues surrounding the film industry as a huge threat to America and something he can have a significant impact on from his position. He takes what he considers to be the harder option but in doing so gives his future life more worth. 

There is an underlying message about the wider issues facing Holllywood at the time this film is set (1951) and how easy it was for people like Whitlock to get involved with communist cells. The discussions on such topics is outside the intended remit of this review, though the recent film Trumbo is a good starting point.

Hail, Caesar! offers a lot to fans of the Coen Brothers, though it feels like a hugely missed opportunity due to failings of an over-complicated plot that could have been significantly trimmed to focus the story on the most relevant characters. Fun in parts but overall a disappointment.

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