The Coen brothers have been on such a great winning streak for the last 10+ years that it’s almost hard to remember that they were in some pretty dire straits in the early 2000s. In 2003 and 2004 they released two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which were considered back to back failures both commercially and critically. In the grand scheme of things I wouldn’t call either of those movies terrible and actually kind of enjoy Intolerable Cruelty for what it is, but it certainly looked like the Coens were losing their touch and were perhaps on the outs. Fortunately they were able to take a three year break, regroup, and come out with their Academy Award winning triumph No Country for Old Men. Since then they’ve everything they’ve put out has at least been a critical triumph and some of them have even made pretty decent box office. All good things do come to an end however, and there were a lot of signs pointing to their latest movie Hail, Caesar being the film that broke the winning streak. The film’s early February release date was certainly a bad sign, but really it’s the trailer that had me worried as it had exactly the same retro celebrity driven tone that those early 2000s failures had. I’d like to say I was wrong in my suspicious, but alas I think they’ve turned out to be correct.
Set in 1951 Hollywood, the title Hail Caesar refers to a film that is being made at a fictional movie studio called Capitol Pictures which is being overseen by an executive named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is pondering whether or not to leave the movie industry to get a cushy job at Lockheed. While deciding this he finds himself juggling a bunch of crisis all at once. One of his leading ladies (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and he needs to find a way to either conceal this or find someone for her to get into a sham marriage with fast in order to avoid a scandal. Meanwhile he’s trying to convert one of his B-western stars (Alden Ehrenreich) into the leading man of an upscale comedy of manners despite his thick Texan accent, much to the consternation of his director (Ralph Fiennes). Worst of all, the star of his titular huge budget Roman epic (George Clooney) has disappeared from the set and appears to have been kidnapped by a communist cell called The Future, and a pair of sibling reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) seems to be on to all this trouble.
Though it has a very different tone, Hail Caesar actually has certain structural similarities to the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man and their 2012 film Inside Llewyn Davis in that all three films look at men who are in the midst of spiritual and/or personal crises and are trying to decide what the next direction in their lives will be. Where A Serious Man was plainly Jewish in its outlook and Inside Llewyn Davis had a sort of Buddist quality in the way it cycled in on itself, this one would seem to be looking at aspects of Christianity or at the very lease gentility. It is notable that Eddie Mannix is a practicing Catholic in the movie, especially given that most studio executives in the 50s were Jewish. Additionally, the film that he’s making is clearly modeled after 50s sword and sandals movies like Quo Vidas and The Robe in that it was openly dealing with the Christ story, but doing so in a very superficial and cynical way in order to sell it to middle America. I am not, however, sure exactly what the Coens were trying to say about Mannix’ Catholicism as this film is a bit muddled and easily distracted. Mannix certainly seems sincere in his beliefs as he seems to go to confession every day, possibly because he’s constantly dealing with the tawdry scandals that his movie stars get into but he also feels he needs to assemble holy men in order to know whether or not his film is theologically sound.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into the spiritual elements of the film and should concern myself more with what the Coens are trying to say about 50s Hollywood, namely that it probably wasn’t the golden age we all like to think it is. It’s notable that every one of the fake films within the film looks awful. The title movie is a bloated and empty expensive tentpole, the Alden Ehrenreich character goes from being in a moronic B-western to being in a pretentious drawing room movie that only feigns at sophistication, and elsewhere we see people making cookie cutter musicals that only exist because other similar movies made money. What’s more, the film shows that celebrities were just as capable of being vain and scandal-ridden in the past as they are now and that people were as vapidly obsessed with tabloid stuff then as they are now. Of course this is far from the first movie to point any of this out and I’m also not exactly sure where the sub-plot about the communist cell comes in, firstly because this sub-plot kind of suggests that Joe McCarthy had good reason to be worried about Hollywood and secondly because it hardly seems to play into Mannix’s inner conflict at all aside from the fact that it gives him another crisis to clean up.
So ultimately I can’t say I got a lot out of Hail Caesar thematically, but that would have been alright if it simply worked as a comedy. Unfortunately I can’t say I found the movie all that funny. To be fair, very few of the Coens’ pure comedies have really been on my wavelength, pretty much the only ones that have really made me laugh all that uproariously in the past have been The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading while others like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy have at best left me with a certain dry amusement. “Dry amusement” probably describes what I felt during the better moments in Hail Caesar. There were certainly some scenes and moments in the movie I enjoyed. The film’s parodies of old Hollywood films are certainly fun, especially an innuendo laden musical number featuring a cameo by Channing Tatum, but the film would have benefited greatly from an injection of faster screwball pacing. So, what we’re left with is a movie that is simply not deep enough and not fun enough to really be a satisfying Coen Brothers product by any measure. Having said all that, a Coen Brothers movie is a Coen brothers movie and even their misfires are going to be a little watchable but this is definitely one of their worst.