Hail, Caesar! Plot Summary:
Set in the age of old Hollywood in the 1950’s, a studio executive (Josh Brolin) deals with the stress and quirks of the business, including the kidnapping of a major Hollywood star (George Clooney) on the eve of the film’s completion.
Hail, Caesar! is a perfect example of what the Coen Brothers do and don’t do well. The movie looks gorgeous. It’s intricately crafted. There’s plenty of dialogue that makes you think. The problem is that pesky notion of character and story. Every once in a while, the Coen Brothers will deliver a film for the ages, but it’s usually saddled in between muddled self-indulgent nonsense. Hail, Caesar! is definitely better, and more focused than Burn After Reading or A Serious Man. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and the story has monster potential. The problem is it gets too Coen Brothers. What do I mean by that? They can’t sit still. They can never focus on a cohesive narrative. They jump all over the place. While the movie has great individual scenes, they don’t contribute to one major plot, so the impact isn’t as strong. Maybe I’m an old fart dinosaur, but movies need to tell a story, not a string of Saturday Night Live sketches.
The Coen Brothers clearly wanted to make a love letter/parody of classic Hollywood. That passion shows up on the screen. The best moments are when they jump around from set to set of fake Hollywood films that feel like they actually existed in the 1950’s. While these scenes are extremely well crafted and entertaining, they don’t mean anything to the actual story. And that’s my main gripe, the primary story. George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a major Hollywood star filming the studio’s biggest film, a Roman epic. He gets kidnapped from the set. Okay, a solid premise. There’s definitely potential there. When you find out what the kidnapping is all about though, it’s pretty lame. Really? That’s what they went with? They also barely spend anytime on this plotline. It’s almost like the Coen Brothers wanted to make a movie about 1950’s Hollywood, but they needed to shoe horn in a hackneyed kidnapping plot to stretch it out to a full length motion picture.
In fact, more time at the script stage could have done wonders for this film. It wasn’t until the last ten minutes did I realize what could have made this work. The movie focuses on Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, the head of production for Capitol Studios, where he’s constantly dealing with headaches. For the first two acts of the film, Mannix is a fairly generic character. I didn’t fully get into his story till the end. The movie should have been about this guy dealing with the everyday stress and nonsense of the film business. They tease this all the way through, but it’s always short changed in exchange for rushed subplots. This could have been fantastic if they made it like 30 Rock, but in the 50’s, where Eddie Mannix is the Liz Lemon character.
The actors are doing a good job, but they usually have to over act because of how underwritten their characters are. Ralph Fiennes as an old school drama director, and Alden Ehrenreich as this dopey Western star easily have the best scene in the movie. Scarlett Johansson is giving it her all, but her subplot is completely forgettable. Channing Tatum steals the show in an elaborate dance number, but again, the scene means absolutely nothing. George Clooney does a lot with a little, but could have been so much more.
The Coen Brothers are maddening at times. They care about mood and style more than actual substance. There’s a lot to appreciate about this movie, but it’s completely empty due to a lack of story. There are individual characters and moments that could have made for five great movies on their own, but are mish-mashed together, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. Wes Anderson is a better example of what the Coen Brothers should be. He gives you style all over the place, but his characters are impactful. There’s definitely four or five big laughs here, but it could have benefitted from more humor. If you worship at the altar of the Coen Brothers, you’ll probably like this. I was entertained, but for a movie that never bored me, I was glad for it to end. Classic Coen Brothers.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (‘Meh’)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.