Joel and Ethan Coen are an odd breed to be sure, and if you don’t like or understand their comedic style, you probably never will. It’s a very subtle, very twisted sense of humor, and I have to admit, I’m one of those people who just doesn’t get it. That’s not to say I don’t think the Coen brothers aren’t good filmmakers. Not only do they stay true to who they are in everything they do, but their work in the heavier drama arena, with films like No Country For Old Men or True Grit, showcase their extraordinary talents. But films like those follow a much different set of standards than their comedies do, one that’s so entirely different and off-the-wall that it’s really hard to explain. Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’s new all-out portrait of insanity, tries to mimic the sensibility of their more psychedelic turns, like The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, and because of that seems to get a little too lost in its own self-indulgence.
The movie takes place in 1950s Hollywood, a time when movie studios controlled more than just what movies their contracted actors would star in. Here’s a studio system that churned out popularity for popularity’s sake and held an iron fist when it came to controlling the tabloids and what their stars did outside of the industry. It’s a good place to set-up a quirky dramedy, one that brilliantly makes fun of old Hollywood tropes while imprinting the Coen’s loosely sadistic style. However, the Coens can’t seem to find a center to any of the madness, which leads to having a lot of very talented actors (who all give very good, quirky performances) stumble through a jumbled mess of unrelated vignettes that never fully come together as a proper whole.
What does tie them all together (or at least, attempts to tie them all together) is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head honcho of Capital Pictures. Essentially, the movie plays as a day in the life of Mannix, following him as he tries to put out the various fires that erupt on several current productions the studio is financing, all the while contemplating another job offer that really isn’t explained beyond giving him more pay with better hours. What it ultimately comes down to is a chance for him to spend more time with his family. Brolin does a terrific job representing this character as flawed, yet determined. He knows what he wants, knows how to handle problems under pressure, but at the same time is confused about where he sits on the world stage.
Diffusing every little squabble, every story that could potentially hurt one of his stars is what Mannix does best, so when a group of fanatical communist writers known as ‘The Future’ kidnaps Baird Whitlock (played with just enough fusion of silly and stoic by George Clooney), one of the major stars of the studio’s next prestige picture, Hail, Caesar!, Mannix remains as cool as a cucumber… at least when he feels he has everything under control. The trailers made us believe that the movie centered around this very plot line, but in reality, this story is one of several subplots sprinkled throughout the film. ‘The Future’ seeks a hundred thousand dollars to get back what they deserve from the capitalist system, but the Coens spend so little time on this idea, it ends up going nowhere fast. Even Baird’s absorption of their ideas and his brief turn to their way of thinking is all but squandered, leaving very little purpose to any of it. The trailers made us believe that the movie centered around this very plot line, but in reality, this story is one of several subplots sprinkled throughout the film.
In fact, the story that actually seems to take up most of the film’s attention revolves around Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an actor/singer whose great on horseback but can’t act to save his life. When a costume drama needs a new leading man, the head of the studio pulls the kid from the set of his current western to return to the back lot for this other film. Hobie immediately clashes with the director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who seeks to have him shipped out faster than you can say, “Would that it twer so simple.” And then… nothing. The entire plot basically peters out in favor of trying to connect to the Baird Whitlock thread, but again, the connection is so thin and minor, you have to wonder what the point of the whole thing is. In fact, the issues Mannix has to deal with are so mundane and easy, there wasn’t enough conflict to hold my interest — especially when most of the fires are put out off screen or by coincidence.
One major faux pas the Coens make is in their need to introduce minor characters late in the game that have no bearing on anything that happens in the movie as a whole. For example, Jonah Hill pops up in the last twenty minutes as a notary who signs off on papers releasing Scarlett Johansson’s baby to her husband in order for her to be able to adopt the child in the near future so it doesn’t look so bad that she’s a single mother. Don’t worry, folks. None of that’s a spoiler. It’s the whole subplot, which plays out in maybe ten minutes of the film and has absolutely nothing to do with the main subplots or in Mannix’s non-existent character arc. The Coens are heavily sidetracked by little things like this, which also includes hooking up Hobie with a young actress for publicity purposes, and then trying to stay a story some gossip columnists (twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton) are trying to drudge up about Baird, both of which offer nothing tantalizing or important to the overall story.
But as I said, the scenes that involve the actual movie making process are done beautifully. The humorous eye the brothers have for making fun of that particular era are spot on and work extraordinarily well, from how people act on set, to directors frustrations over actors who can’t act, or the whims of a playboy actor who has a sordid past being covered up by the studio. One scene in particular, where Channing Tatum and his sailor buddies break out in song and dance at a bar, perfectly represents the silliness of the 50s musical craze. But simply throwing a bunch of popcorn at the screen and tying it together with Mannix doesn’t work the way I think they were hoping, and in the end, nothing seems to fit together quite right. None of the story arcs do anything to really change any of the characters and every story falls flat with climax’s that are so mundane and unimportant that the only thought on my mind when I left the theater was… huh?
My Grade: C+
Next week, new movies include Deadpool, How To Be Single and Zoolander 2. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.