Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)
I sometimes struggle over what to make of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Certain ones, I adore. These include: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy (hardly a popular choice, but I love it just the same), Fargo, A Serious Man and True Grit. In others, while I may enjoy parts, I do not find the completed whole particularly satisfying. In this category we find: Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, and now … Hail, Caesar! (we won’t discuss the films I do not like at all, which are but few). Filled with scenes of great brilliance, with equally brilliant performances, Hail, Caesar! somehow manages to be less than the sum of its (un)equal parts. Still, when it succeeds, it does so with panache. Whatever my opinion of the entire movie, I had a great time watching (most of) it.
Loosely based on the life of real-life Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, the movie immerses us in the world of the late studio era, when each production house was a universe unto itself, with laws set by the moguls that Could. Not. Be. Broken. Mannix was one of the men tasked with keeping stars in line, lest their shenanigans end up in the gossip columns, ruining their public image and jeopardizing profits. The Coens have terrific fun with the setting, just as they did with their previous (twisted) love letter to Hollywood, Barton Fink. Here, their affection for a bygone age feels less cynical and more genuine, which is good in that we get many more delightful pastiches of their thoughts on what it must have been like, but bad in that the film has much less bite. What, exactly, is it all for? Every time I feel this way at the end of one of their movies, I sense that they spent too much time laughing at their own jokes (but what great jokes!) and forgot about the need for an ultimate punch line.
Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) plays Mannix as a tough drill sergeant who loves what he does. He sees himself as the pillar that supports the entire studio edifice. As always, Brolin is very good; it’s a shame the movie doesn’t quite do justice to his performance. Others shine as well. There’s Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a pregnant starlet in the mode of Esther Williams, mermaid suit and all; Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) as a Gene Kelly-esque dancer; Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a temperamental director; and, almost best of all, relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) as a young Western star whom the studio has (oddly) decided to recast in a drawing-room drama. George Clooney (The Monuments Men) is around, as well, playing the fatuous leading man of the biblical epic that Mannix is shepherding, but his attempts at stupid feel too obvious, and he ends up being the least interesting member of the cast.
The plot centers around … a plot! And this being the 1950s, the Communists are behind it. A cabal of disgruntled writers plans a kidnapping which stops Mannix’s production cold, with money on the line. The gossip columnists start circling, like vultures, to figure out what’s going on, and before too long Mannix has a real mess on his hands. Meanwhile, here and there, we get diverting scenes of this and that – as if the Coens wanted to shoehorn every story element that would sense in that time period into the script. The Esther Williams and Gene Kelly numbers are wonderful, as is the Ben-Hur-like movie within the movie; the Communists, less so. The period details are all exquisitely rendered, and any film aficionado or lover of film history should get a kick out of so much of what is on screen. But when the credits come up, we have to ask to what end all that effort?