By Christian DiMartino
Joel and Ethan Coen are back with one of their strangest outings yet, Hail, Caesar!, a fun but bizarre concoction that I found hard to put a finger on.
I remember the first time I saw The Big Lebowski. I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what the hell it was about. But then I decided to give it a re-watch, and I completely fell in love with it. Perhaps that will happen with a trip back to Hail, Caesar!, but I get the vibe that might not be the case. This is a film that looks and feels like one of their quirkier outings, but it isn’t. But that’s not to say I didn’t like it though.
As a piece of storytelling, it feels a lot like their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which basically revolved around this miserable folk singer for a week. Their subject this time is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for a film production studio in the 50s. Mannix goes to confession damn near every day, just for little things. He’s a man who feels like everything must be perfect.
The Coens have great fun with the movies within the movies here, such a cheesy old-time western (Alden Ehrenreich steals the show as a John Wayne-type), a sailor musical (Channing Tatum shows up, but not for enough time), a mermaid movie (Scarlett Johansson is in this one, but again, under-used), and an pretentious drama (directed by a Ralph Fiennes character).
But the studio is currently in the makings of their biggest film of the year: a biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! starring a doofus named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, hamming it up nicely). This “movie within the movie” is where the actual story kicks in: Baird is kidnapped, and so it is up to Mannix to not only find him, but to also keep everyone in tact, and also keep the rumor out of the tabloids (in a bit of inspired casting, Tilda Swinton plays twin journalists who hate each other).
Hail, Caesar! is such a gorgeous film to behold. The production and costume design is just marvelous, perfectly capturing the feeling and mood of the times. The cinematography from the great, Oscar-snubbed Roger Deakins is also stunning. The scene with Johansson’s mermaid movie nearly caused my eyes to melt.
The Coens have some great ideas here, and their great cast (I didn’t even mention everyone) sells it well, even if some people don’t get the screentime they deserve. Hail, Caesar! is a good amount of fun, but yet to me, something about Hail, Caesar felt like Baird Whitlock himself: Missing.
The film looks and feels like a comedy, and here and there there are some truly funny moments. The Coens know how to write the hell out of any screenplay, and this one is fairly sharp. I also liked the twist involving the kidnappers, which fits considering the times and all.
But yet only occasionally is it funny. It feels like they wanted to make it funny, but then they also wanted to take it seriously. The end result is a film that works, but not as well as it could and should. The tone is off, and by the end, I just wasn’t sure how to take it.
I’ve been fighting with myself on Hail, Caesar for a few days now, hence the delay on the review. I liked it, but there’s some noticeable flaws. But am I really complaining? No, because the Coens have done so much for us for so long that it’s perfectly fine if one of their films doesn’t quite stick the landing. They have made great films, and I know they will prevail again.