Any time Joel and Ethan Coen make a movie, it’s going to be an event that captures my attention, and such is case with Hail, Caesar!. A bouncy, energetic dalliance into the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, this is a well-meaning romp full of whip-cracking dialogue that only the Coens can pull off, homages to the classic genres of yesteryear, and quirky characters that would become stilted in the hands of any other filmmakers.
While Hail, Caesar! is fun and engaging throughout, it lacks much real weight, a fact that, though the film is still good, keeps it from being truly great. It’s a bit like watching Barton Fink, but without the darkness and import. This is a juggling act of the highest order, with numerous threads, characters, and stories shooting in every direction. It also contains elements of comedy, noir, biblical epic, and more. Occasionally, however, a ball drops.
The main narrative thrust of Hail, Caesar! follows Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, the head of Capital Pictures Studio. In addition to being a "fixer," he’s a conductor, orchestrating numerous productions, running interference to prevent scandals for his actors, trouble shooting every step of the way, and not afraid to get his hands dirty when necessary. With a time running out on a job offer that will provide more stability and less chaos, he already has a lot on his mind. But when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), his biggest star in his biggest picture, a Cecil B. DeMille-style epic, is kidnapped by a cadre of hilarious communist screenwriters, his day takes a turn for the worse.
That’s the primary story, but this is a Coen Brothers movie after all, so there is so much more going on. Clooney’s dimwitted Whitlock is charmed by his rhetoric-spouting captors, Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney gets maybe the best song and dance number put to film since this era of Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran has a situation that needs to be handled delicately, and Tilda Swinton plays competing twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessely Thacker, hot on the heels of a juicy story. Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation as cowboy heartthrob Hobie Doyle, a wooden actor most comfortable on horseback, thrust into Douglas Sirk-style domestic melodrama. His interactions with the affected director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), are the highlight of the movie.
Across the board, the acting is fantastic. I honestly can’t envision anyone but the Coens trying this and it not becoming clumsy and pretentious and ringing false. That’s actually one of my big issues with Bridge of Spies, a Coen Brothers script in the hands of Steven Spielberg’s hands, who never gets a handle on how to direct their style of dialogue. But with Joel and Ethan at the helm, the quippy exchanges sing.
Combing genre elements like they do, as well as the sheer number of side stories, it feels like they crammed any and every idea they had into Hail, Caesar!. On their own, most of these moments are great and hilarious enough to justify inclusion, but it leads to a choppy flow from scene to scene, and there are some that simply should have been left on the cutting room floor. A quick scene with Frances McDormand, as a film editor oddly enough, is fantastic, but a distraction. The same goes for the Scarlett Johansson/Jonah Hill aside. Most of the arcs loop around until they ultimately connect, but that one never comes back. It’s just another complication, another problem Mannix has to fix, which there are plenty of elsewhere, and its conclusion feels like a tacked on afterthought with no larger importance. With everything going on, Hail, Caesar! becomes disjointed and scattered, especially as it barrels towards the finale.
Meticulous visual craftsmen that the Coens are, Hail, Caesar! is a stunning picture to behold. With their sharp eye for period detail, the sets, both in the movie and the movies within the movie, are pitch perfect. Their knack for staging, choreography, and framing in on full display, and their clever use of music underscores the mood, propelling Mannix along on his no good, very bad day.
To be fair, all of the issues are relatively minor, and can easily be forgiven because the movie is so damn much fun. Though it can be bumpy moment to moment, once you’re embedded in a scene, it’s hilarious and charming, keeping you laughing without allowing time to sweat the smalls tuff. Hail, Caesar! may not go down as one of the best Coen Brothers movie, but even less than their best is still better than damn near every other offering out there. [Grade: B-]