Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, Frances McDormand, Veronica Osorio, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens
Running Time: 106 minutes
HAIL, CAESAR! is the name of the new Biblical epic from Capitol Pictures, and its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been abducted. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)- head of physical production at the studio, and essentially a fixer- has to track down Baird while contending with a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johnanson), a seriously miscast cowboy actor (Ahren Eldenreich) and a set of twins, the scheming gossip rag journalists Thessaly and Thora, played by Tilda Swinton.
The early 50s California backdrop is lovingly realised by the Coens, and their affection for the source material – the golden era of Hollywood studio films – is clear. Roger Deakins is once again behind the camera and ably accentuates the gorgeous vistas, playing around with bold colours and hard lighting in a playful take on the movies of the era. When it comes to the story, this film borrows tropes from other Coen works like BURN AFTER READING and THE BIG LEBOWSKI in its fusion of screwball comedy dialogue and film noir set-ups, leaning very far towards the comedy side of the spectrum.
What’s surprising about HAIL, CAESAR! is how close to A SERIOUS MAN it ends up: it deals with some relatively weighty themes, particularly looking at the political atmosphere of the time and ideas surrounding responsibility and individual action in the face of faith. Fortunately, this is very much a sideways look, veering away from the at-times wilfully obscure and esoteric ideas in A SERIOUS MAN.
With a grand cast and classic era Hollywood focused plot, HAIL, CAESAR! should be an easy win for the Coens. But it has faltered with audiences while winning favour with critics, and on viewing the movie it’s no surprise. The film’s structure is its main fault: the typical Coen mystery, with clueless antagonists and victim alike, is interwoven with a series of extended homages to the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in big MGM musicals like ON THE TOWN and Esther Williams pictures along with biblical epics (the titular movie) and even a spot of Coward-esque melodrama.
These segments they require a solid knowledge of the period of filmmaking to make any real sense of, and reward an even deeper understanding of the minutiae of the personal lives of the stars being parodied. I’m not a massive fan of these pictures, but I can pat myself on the back and call myself a bit of a Gene Kelley know-it-all, so most of the references made sense to me. This goes some way to explaining the gulf between public and critical opinions on the film, after all, critics are best placed to know this stuff. But even then, the vast amount of jokes are made at the expense of films which a good portion of the audience will not have seen, and to lean on pastiche so heavily is a serious impediment to the movie’s ability to stand on its own as an independent piece of work.
This is exacerbated by a far more frustrating problem – the overabundance of celebrity cameos in the movie. Brolin, Clooney and Eldenreich (a relative unknown compared to the rest, more than holding his own here) make good leads, and they have a fun screenplay full of interesting characters to work with. But the Coen’s commitment to meta tropes and dissecting the machinery of Hollywood gives way to an avalanche of appearances from everyone under the sun.
Jonah Hill, featuring prominently on posters in cinema lobbies everywhere, is only in one scene in the film. Channing Tatum gets an entire musical number; I’m a fan of Tatum and of screen musicals, but this doesn’t serve the film well at all after the first few minutes. Dolph Lundgren appears in the picture, without any lines at all, in silhouette. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of a star-studded studio picture, but the overall effect is more like a television variety show: well-produced, and very entertaining provided you know the context, but mostly devoid of further worth. (MGM did use to produce films like these, the Star Showcase pictures; maybe this is another meta nod from the Coens, although I doubt it).
The end result for the cinemagoer is a frustrating hodgepodge of ideas, mixing a great story, sumptuously realised setting and some deep, funny musings on politics and religion with a cavalcade of half-baked celebrity segues. This leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that the film is a highlight reel for a tighter, more meaningful film that will now never be.
HAIL, CAESAR! is released in UK cinemas March 4.