When it comes to the work of the Coen brothers, it would be fair to say that my history with their filmography spans an extremely broad spectrum of opinion. Whilst I regard Fargo and True Grit among my very favourite pictures of all time, I have also been greatly disappointed by the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man over the years. This means that every new trip to the cinema to experience the latest Coen brothers release is a complete roll of the dice, would Hail, Caesar! prove to be a winning throw or a wasted gamble?
Hail, Caesar! presents the audience with a collection of quirky events that occur against the backdrop of an archetypal 1950s Hollywood movie studio, loosely linked by the presence of real-life production head and fixer Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin). From the Communist lead kidnapping of top star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to the attempted transitioning of perennial cowboy to sophisticated thespian of young heartthrob actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the film gives an exaggerated and offbeat take on movie making and collateral damage management in the studio system, and though there is some fun to be had, overall I found the picture to be something of a disjointed, unfocused mess. Besides a handful of enjoyable set pieces including Channing Tatum’s talent for song and dance, George Clooney’s effortless and unassuming comic timing and Tilda Swinton playing twin sister journalists sniffing out gossip stories, even for a Coen brothers creation there is very little engaging plot for an audience to invest in and be taken on a journey by like all great films need to do. Though what is presented on screen is undeniably stylish and pleasing to the eye on an aesthetic level, in its attempt to remain as whimsical and eccentric as possible, the film fails to mine anything deeper than surface level intrigue and ultimately, if an audience don’t care about what is happening on the screen, their attention is going to wander. This was the certainly the case of my own personal experience, as I found myself committing the cardinal sin of checking emails and text messages even before the 45 minute mark. When the Coen brothers get it right, they get it really, really right, but unfortunately it seems that with Hail, Caesar! the filmmakers have swung for the fences and missed in terms of producing a picture that both satisfies an artistic itch and ticks the boxes for including a mainstream audience in the fun. The few truly shining and engaging moments that the narrative boasts are lost within the sea of fast moving and disjointed subplots that don’t seem to be able to connect in a pleasing manner or do anything to cement an overall message. In truth, the entire picture feels like a sequence of odd period sketches that, although quirkily enjoyable to a degree, do nothing to form any kind of worthwhile feature film experience. I’m not stranger to the offbeat stylings of Joel and Ethan Coen, and I am sure there are legions of fans who will regard this with as much acclaim as the rest of their works, but for me, it proved to be mostly an exercise in fruitless tedium.
Something that adds to the mystery of why exactly I disliked Hail, Caesar! so much is that, on the whole, the film stars a cast of actors whom I usually enjoy very much. From the stoic and deadpan Josh Brolin to all singing all dancing Channing Tatum to George Clooney giving the kind of quirky and understated performance that only the Coen brothers seem to be able to get out of him, the acting throughout the film is arguably its greatest asset. It would be fair to say that no performer puts a foot wrong, more that the directions they were given and material they had to work with had too many fundamental flaws to be covered with strong on screen presences. One shining light, though, comes in the form of Alden Ehrenreich as the wholesome heartthrob Hobie Doyle. Enjoying a monopoly share of the screen time, Ehrenreich gives a pleasantly earnest and youthful performance as the young Hollywood star, providing the audience with its only real character with whom they can form an emotional attachment. Though Hobie Doyle’s sections of the narrative, much like all the others, do very little to knit together any kind of satisfying structure, his time on screen is some of the most enjoyable the audience get, and Ehrenreich’s fresh and fun performance will certainly put a smile on your face if nothing else does.
Overall, Hail, Caesar! proves to be a couple of steps too far in to the eccentricity of the Coen brothers for my personal filmic tastes. Though Fargo contained all the same quirkiness as this latest release, it also hinged on a compelling and truly intriguing central plot. In my opinion, the mistake that has been made with Hail, Caesar! is that in giving the audience these separated bursts of 1950s Hollywood satire and whimsy, the filmmakers have forgotten to incorporate an interesting enough key narrative thread. Sure, the kidnapping of George Clooney’s character has been marketed as the central event, but the truth is that not enough time is spent on anything, and it results in a feeling of complete and utter nothingness. Would not recommend!