The problem when you have a really good run is that even the slightest stumble becomes very noticeable. Over the last decade NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN and especially INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS made you forget that these are also the guys who also ham-fistedly remade THE LADYKILLERS. HAIL, CAESAR! has its moments for sure, but it’s not quite in the same league as the rest of the Coen Brothers’ recent works, all of which were funnier, smarter, deeper and more consistent in quality.
Los Angeles, 1954. Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) job of making sure everything runs smoothly at Capitol Pictures becomes considerably more challenging when one of the studios’ most valuable stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by persons unknown. But of course time is big money in this business and Mannix toils to get ambitious epic Hail, Caesar! completed with or without his star, in addition to keeping the rest of the talent happy and the press of his back.
Until reading about the film afterwards I had no idea Eddie Mannix was a real person. I’d obviously forgotten that Bob Hoskins played him in HOLLYWOODLAND, a film that shares a lot of DNA, if not its tone, with Hail, Caesar! Mannix serves as a stand-in for most scary producer-types from Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as acting as gumshoe for the film’s noirish plot. Brolin is fantastically assured in the role; another of the Coens’ serious men, but considerably more appreciated than Larry Gopnik or Llewyn Davis. Just because people know how powerful a figure he is in Hollywood doesn’t mean Mannix has an easy ride – he has a lot riding on his shoulders and his roundabout journey to discover whether he would prefer to keep doing a hard job he loves or take on something easier but less fulfilling is a relatively compelling one. Elsewhere the ensemble play comic takes on real stars and archetypes – Clooney is a mega star like Richard Burton or Charlton Heston; Tatum is essentially playing Gene Kelly and Ralph Fiennes represents every classically-trained theatre director who managed to make it in the artistically frustrating Hollywood Studio System.
Speaking of Kelly and the Studio System, as clever and well put together as the film’s skits lampooning the genre factory of mass-produced filmmaking are, none of them can hope to compare with the satirical brilliance of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Everything worth saying about the flawed hegemony of Hollywood in the 1950s was already said in that superlative musical. Hail, Caesar! does have the benefit of hindsight in talking about a filmmaking boom period we know is on the verge of collapse, and it also makes for a pretty amusing companion piece to films like THE MAJESTIC or TRUMBO because it incorporates Cold War paranoia as a plot point in almost exactly the opposite way that they do.
Being a Coen Brothers film it sounds good when people open their mouths and looks even better when they don’t because the Coens got Roger Deakins back to film it for them and work his usual magic.
When all’s said and done though, the connective tissue of film isn’t quite there. Individual sequences work – Alden Ehrenreich’s rootin’ tootin’ Western star getting to grips with lavish Broadway adaptations; Mannix getting a focus group of religious leaders to give their seal of approval to his movie’s depiction of “The Christ” – but outside these set pieces, jokes fall flat and the narrative lacks direction. Even if you treat Hail, Caesar! as a character piece where plot is less important, only a couple of the ensemble get any real arc and some players are introduced then forgotten about again almost instantaneously.
Diverting in part and with moments of usual Coen-y brilliance, but underwhelming as a whole, Hail, Caesar! goes straight to the middle of the pile in terms of the Two-Headed-Director’s oeuvre. SSP