There’s a concept known as gestalt, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. “Hail, Caesar!” appears to be an anti-gestalt. I can’t really identify any one part of it as being outright bad, and yet somehow the combination doesn’t reach the heights of entertainment it should. The result is a film that has a few notable highlights, but overall is rather mundane.
Over the course of a day in 1951 Hollywood, Capitol Pictures’ head fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) deals with a star actor kidnapped by communists, a pregnant starlet, a miscast romantic lead, a snobbish director, nosy twin gossip columnists, and a neglected family, all while contemplating a job offer from Lockheed that would make his life a lot less complicated.
Universally solid, with Brolin being particularly outstanding in the lead role of Mannix. George Clooney as Baird Witlock, the star of ‘Hail, Caesar!’ historical epic, and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a western performer roped into being a romantic lead, are both also great. All three bring the appropriate level-headedness, cocksure arrogance, and charming naivety to their respective roles.
The issue I have here is everyone aside from those three, everyone else is severely underutilized, with most appearing in only a couple of scenes. They’re all perfectly suitable for their roles, from Scarlett Johansson’s swimming starlet, to Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists, and even Channing Tatum’s musical lead dancer, but all only have a couple of scenes in the film and have limited dialog. Jonah Hill, who features prominently in the trailer, is ONLY in that one scene. To me, this seems like a waste of talent, or at the very least the Coen’s showing off by getting big name actors to do extended cameos in their films.
Still, I can’t hold a lack of screen time against the actors. Only Frances McDormand’s editor stood out as being bad, as her lines were clearly dubbed.
Music & Sound
The music is pretty damn enjoyable, and fits right into the Hollywood standard of the time. Most notable are Tatum’s song & dance bit of ‘No Dames’ with a group of sea-bound sailors, which works as a hysterical send-up of ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ from ‘South Pacific’, while Ehrenreich’s ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ was a nice western-style comedy love ballad. The rest of the songs and background music also suitable fit the atmosphere of the scene.
There is some occasional narration by Michael Gambon over the film, and while not bad it did seem unnecessary as it never added information that couldn’t have been picked up via dialog. The dubbing on McDormand is also a problem, but she’s only in one scene.
Cinematography & Visuals
While nothing absolutely blew me away, this evokes the feel of the era quite well. It switches smoothly between classic epic, stage musical, western, romance, slapstick comedy, and even a bit of film noir style as befitting each scene.
I noticed one continuity error during the “No Dames” number – a bottle gets knocked off the bar and isn’t visible on the floor in the next shot – but I honestly couldn’t tell if that was a goof or an intentional nod to such inconsistencies in those films. The choreography in the number is actually really fun to watch, and definitely shows off Tatum’s talent as a dancer.
Matte paintings are also used quite well. The best example is another Tatum scene where he and his communist buddies are on a rowboat awaiting a submarine. While this is clearly a set, the use of a the painting actually makes the actors seem like they’re in a scene with real objects, unlike similar shots in “The Finest Hours” where everything looks fake.
Here’s where cracks start to appear. There is nothing ostensibly wrong with any of it, in that it all sounds natural given the character’s situations. It’s never forced, and the actors carry it well.
The problem I run into is that this is a comedy, and frankly this isn’t all that funny. There were several times there was clearly a joke being made, but either the punchline was missed, the joke was extended too long, or it simply fell flat. For example, Hobbie is assigned on short notice to be in a romantic film, but has trouble with his lines. The director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) then spends about 2 minutes going back and forth with him on the proper pronunciation of, “Would that it were so simple,” all the while Hobbie constantly confuses the director’s first and last names. While initially amusing and both actors are charismatic enough that it never became annoying, the joke simply went on too long.
With that said, it’s never unfunny, and while most of the jokes that do work are simple chuckles there are a couple of gems. My personal favorite is when Mannix is meeting with 3 priests and a rabbi (Robert Picardo) about whether, “Hail, Caesar!” is likely to offend religious groups. Picardo’s delivery of his lines as he expresses his confusion about why a Jew is being asked to comment on a Christian film and his clear contempt of the others elicited several laughs from me.
Finally, we come to the main problem; this story is all over the place.
While the main plot deals with Witlock’s kidnapping, there is time spent on every one of the other subplots mentioned in the synopsis. This stretches the story so thin that none reach a satisfactory conclusion, and some contribute absolutely nothing to the main arc. The starlet’s pregnancy subplot simply ends with the announcement that Hill’s and Johannson’s characters were married off screen. The twin gossip columnists show up, threaten to write a story, complain about their meddling sister, then leave. None of these plot threads contribute anything to the story, nor are their scenes funny enough on their own to warrant inclusion.
The result is a story that, while not terribly complicated, lacks any cohesion. It jumps between plot threads in hope that the audience will find something amusing, but misses far more often than it hits and only leads to confusion as the audience tries to piece the plot lines together.
My first thought when this film ended was, “What did I just watch?”
It seems the Coens wanted to pay homage to post-war Hollywood by including nods to every film genre that was popular at the time, as well as including topical references like the writer’s blacklist and gossip pages. However, in doing so they produced a film that is well acted, wonderfully shot, and has a good score, but whose story is stretched so thinly over all the various plot elements that those elements are at best adequate and at worst boring.
There are many elements here that do work well, so it’s disappointing that the movie never comes together as a cohesive whole. This is by no means a bad film, but it had the potential to be a lot better given the talent involved.