by Elizabeth EstenWhether it’s the story of a lazy slacker trying to get a new rug, a young woman hunting down the man who killed her father or an artist just trying to become the next great singer, the Coen brothers have always shined when it comes to their storytelling. As a long time fan (ever since my first viewing of Fargo back in high school), I’ve been looking forward to their latest project since the first trailer came out. Does Hail, Caesar! live up to the hype? Yes and no.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer who runs a very successful studio called Capitol Pictures. After Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s latest religious epic, “Hail, Caesar,” gets kidnapped by a mysterious group of men, it’s up to Mannix and various other characters to help find him so the film can be completed on time.
Like many Coen brothers films, Hail, Caesar! is very loose in its plot structure. This works to benefit the film in The Big Lebowski, but the execution is much flimsier here. While all the scenes are funny, well acted, and contain some great commentary, the links between each sequence can get pretty thin as the film goes on. The structure never takes away from what the movie does incredibly well, though.
With an all-star cast, the Coens get excellent performances from everyone involved. Brolin does fantastic work as Mannix, the fast talking straight man just trying to keep his business running smoothly. He simultaneously exudes complete confidence in scenes dealing with studio issues, while also showing the character’s internal struggles when needed. Other standouts are Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-type of performer, Alden Ehrenreich as a typecast cowboy trying to reinvent himself, and Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams analogue who is forced to find a husband to keep up public appearances after getting pregnant. Occasionally, the script wastes huge talent like Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill by giving them little to do. They don’t feel completely wasted, but their characters seem slightly underused in the grand scheme of the film.
Where the film really shines, though, is in its mood and old school sensibility. Hail, Caesar! is somewhere between an homage and a spoof of 1950s Hollywood, and has some great commentary on what the studio system did to its actors. The film exposes the truth behind old Hollywood that people tried to hide at the time – methods like creating an image for each actor under contract to better appeal to the masses and fit in with the company’s overall image. It’s brilliant in its light satire of the era, with subtle allusions to everything from the Spaghetti Western to old school musicals. It has some well timed comedy, too, and combined with cinematography provided once again by the great Roger Deakins, the film remains entertaining throughout its runtime.
My only major issue with the movie is the ending. As is the case with many other Coen stories, the conclusion is abrupt, but it doesn’t work at all here because of the lack of cohesion from scene to scene. Before the final moments, the Coens shoehorn in a scene with Mannix learning his lesson in a single conversation and it just feels rushed.
Hail, Caesar! is an entertaining film with a great cast, excellent script and some evocative visuals. While the ending is a mixed bag for me, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
4 out of 5 stars