Hail, Caesar! (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Though commendable that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” is an off-center, satirical comedy about moviemaking, its many pieces never fully come together. It is likely to breed great frustration, especially from laypeople who neither watch very many films nor are interested in how the Hollywood machine functions in the past and present.
It is a piece of work designed for a specific audience: people who work within the film industry, those who are close to it, movie critics, and cinephiles. Although I belong in one of these groups, the film is still not very funny. It is a stretch to call it anything beyond average.
The main strand that is supposed to connect every subplot together is uninteresting and at times downright boring. It involves the head of physical production of Capitol Pictures named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who discovers that the studio’s biggest movie star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by screenwriters who happen to be communists. Cue subtle laughter here. The ransom is set for $100,000. Cue bigger laughter here. That amount of money, even in the standard of 1950s Hollywood, is inconsequential.
Brolin is convincing as a man who is torn between his current occupation and accepting a generous offer to work for the aerospace industry. One feels the performer’s struggle of trying to make sense of his character despite a script that lacks both comic and dramatic focus. I wanted to know more—and deeply—about this man who is so guilty about his every day existence, he feels the need to go to confession for every little thing. Even the priest tells him that he need not go to confession so often as he does.
On the other hand, Clooney cashes it in by utilizing his go-to aren’t-I-so-charming performance. He creates a caricature and in a movie that is filled to the brim by parody and satire, he not only disappears into the background, he is overwhelmed by them. By the end, I felt I had no understanding of what his character is supposed to be about or who the character is as a celebrity, as an actor in the ‘50s, or as a person who just so happens to be in movies. I was bored by Clooney’s many choices of barely passable mediocrity. He should change it up.
I enjoyed that the environment has a look of artificiality and superficiality to them. Every set that Eddie visits, there is a specific design and feeling. One of the most impressive scenes in terms look and effectiveness of comedy involves renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) shooting a dramatic scene in a posh party but one of the replacement stars, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich—continuing his run as a performer to watch out for), just cannot get the rhythm, emotion, and dialogue of a straight-faced drama. It doesn’t help that his prim-looking co-star—not to mention the extras—is increasingly exasperated but attempting not to show it.
Watching Hobie Doyle, who is great at starring in western films but terrible with everything else, trying to act in a serious drama is like forcing an animal into a dress and expecting it to talk like you and me. It is a scene where if the set pieces and script were not on the same level of detail, it would not have turned out so amusing, so entertaining, or as pointed at its commentary that movies are fantasy, that sometimes we look at the obviously inorganic elements on screen but something inside us automatically processes them as real. This is when this film is at its most powerful—and there isn’t enough of them.
“Hail, Caesar!” provokes dry amusement but its too frivolous of an approach fails to balance all of the elements necessary to make it an entertaining and a compelling work. In the end, it is neither; it is flat, uninspiring, and forgettable. It is a work that is best treated as a footnote in the Coen Brothers’ otherwise colorful and impressive oeuvre.