Skip to main content

Would that it were so simple.

Hail, Caesar!
(2016)

(SPOILERS) A Coen Brothers film is always one of my two or three most anticipated in any year, and I’m a devotee of their “frivolous” pictures more than most (and, despite what others would have you believe to the contrary, this is one of their more frivolous pictures; you could assert Intolerable Cruelty has a profound subtext if you so wished). Hail Caesar! had a knockout trailer, one that promised a plenitude of hijinks, wit and wackiness. Unfortunately, it’s a case of a promotional reel that hangs together far better than the whole deal. It’s strange to write this, but for a writer-director-producer multi-hyphenate duo due generally renowned for their discipline and economy, Hail, Caesar! is by far the slovenliest, most indulgent entry in their career. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t often a lot of fun, or even bottom of their estimable pile, but it’s as if they smoked one of the Dude’s doobies, became distracted from where they were supposed to be going, and went bowling instead of polishing off another few drafts (or, more fundamentally, breaking down the structure).


Maybe this goes back to Hail, Caesar!’s genesis as a half-formed, freely-voiced spitball rather than a completely solid kernel of an idea. Originally, it was supposed to be the third in the Clooney “numbskull trilogy” (it has now become the fourth), concerning a theatre troop attempting to put on a play about ancient Rome. But it was evidently never more than a conversation piece, since Clooney is still there, and Caesar! is still there, yet both are decidedly on the side-lines; this is a picture as much and as nebulously informed by its title as O Brother Where Art Thou, but unlike the solidly stringed-together odyssey of that film, this comprises, for the most part, a baggy collection of amusing but inconsequential ‘50s Hollywood homages.


Each of these, from Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran in a musical mermaid number, to Alden Ehrenreich’s crooning cowboy-on-the-range Hobie Doyle performing acrobatic horse tricks, to Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney’s carefree sailor engaging in a smirkingly homo-erotic dance routine, is lovingly staged, exposing the quaint opulence of the period while simultaneously revelling in it (The Wall Street Journal reviewer who surmised from all this that the Coens hate movies is frankly talking out of his arse). Best of these is naturally The Robe-esque Hail, Caesar! itself, complete with Clooney Shatner-ing it up in supreme ham mode as Autolycus (destined to be touched by Jesus) while stalwart Gracchus (the peerless Clancy Brown) looks on with increasing bewilderment.


They’re marvellously created, perfectly-formed asides, but they’re entirely static in terms of contributing to a greater story. It’s bizarre to behold. One senses the brothers are almost being bloody-minded about it, since they’re two of the best judges of pacing in the business. Perhaps they were sitting in the editing suite smirking softly to themselves (not, like Frances McDormand, getting their scarves caught in the projector, so suffering an impromptu garrotting), contemplating the point where the audience will finally tire of waiting for the plot-proper to kick in.


Because it never happens. Nominally, the glue that binds these vignettes together is Josh Brolin’s studio fixer Eddie Mannix. But he isn’t sufficient, not because of his character (a formidable mixture of Catholic softy, fretting over cheating on his wife by sneaking cigarettes, and hired thug, not batting an eye over getting rough with studio assets when they threaten its well-being), but because there’s no greater momentum.


It isn’t as if this kind of studio tour can’t work like gangbusters. Everyone from Tim Burton to Joe Dante to John McTiernan – to the Coens themselves in Barton Fink – has had a ball recreating and commenting on the studio system, but they haven’t tended to lose sight of the finishing line. Hail, Caesar! isn’t even entirely sure where its starting marks are.


There’s a shaggy dog nature to Mannix’s rambling through his various stars’ and starlets’ tribulations and troubles, from DeeAnna’s pregnancy (featuring Jonah Hill, well cast as the go-to-guy for taking on guilty secrets, even serving time if the price is right), to Hobie wooing Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) for the sake of a few column inches, to the same being dropped into a Laurence Laurentz (a fantastic Ralph Fiennes, on Grand Budapest form, but in a scene you could see in one of the trailers – so again, the trailers offer the superior highlights) prestige melodrama and finding himself hopelessly at-sea, to dealing with the various issues arising from the studio’s biblical epic (Clooney’s Blair Whitlock has gone missing – drugged and kidnapped by absurdly exaggerated yet rather dull communists – and Mannix must also take soundings from religious leaders with regard to the film’s potential for causing offence; Robert Picardo’s irascible rabbi absolutely rules this scene, refusing to acknowledge the status of Christ but eventually forced to conclude that the picture itself is relatively innocuous, as these things go). All the ingredients are there, but they fail to cohere into a juggling act whereby these different problems are satisfyingly contemplated and resolved.


One might claim Hail, Caesar! has lofty notions behind its shallow exterior, inquiring into relative systems and values of authority, faith and power, as reflected in the various belief structures of its players (hence the mockery of the exclamatory title, of bowing one’s knee or saluting another as superior). Mannix personifies the weight and influence of the studio, but is being wooed by Lockheed, who claim his job is unimportant and foolish and that he should be doing something of substance (like, atomic bomb-related substance). Yet, for all that he finds his job a pain, he knows he’s good at it, and has clear ideas about others’ places in the food chain.


Hobie (who shows considerably more acumen and resources in sniffing out the perpetrators and rescuing Baird than one would expect from his good ‘ol demeanour) is content to be ordered about, while the likes of Laurentz and Whitlock need putting in their places (the latter hilariously so when he begins brazenly regurgitating the commies’ commie talk in front of Mannix). Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip rag writers Thora and Thessaly Thacker exist to scavenge on whatever scraps Mannix feeds them. Mannix is pretty much God in this equation, and so doesn’t feel like a cog in the machine, even if he is (notably, when he reaffirms his mojo, he cuts off his imparting priest off mid-sentence; his belief is a prop as much as it is a devotion).


The communists occupy the positions of lowly, disabused writers, but secretly all they want is to suck greedily on the corporate teat (to the extent that, when commie spy Gurney saves his beloved pooch at the expense of their ransom, all eyes are on it sinking beneath the waves). When Whitlock fluffs his line, standing before Calvary, his forgotten word is “faith” (so ruining a choice piece of phoney emotion-stirring that has everyone on set welling up).


However, I think attempting to divine something truly sincere or insightful from all this is a mug’s game. There’s no real triumph to Mannix’ decision to stay with the studio, because the Coens have never taken the time to make us care about any of it, not the characters and certainly not the plot. Like the narrative structure, their themes are a hotchpotch of ideas they haven’t bothered to iron out. Or: maybe that’s the point, that none of the authority figures or structures in the picture, including themselves as filmmakers, the purposefully slacking-off master builders, are to be worshipped, obeyed, or otherwise venerated. Which might be an excuse for delivering a movie that’s a little bit shonky.


Which makes all this sound like a failure. But even a Coen Brothers failure is by relative degrees. Mannix’ scenes with the communists, who turn out to be far from threatening, are delightfully surreal; he isn’t forcibly detained and shows no inclination to escape. This collection of dissenters is only really united by their disaffection, rather than true ideals (David Krumholtz is particularly funny as a permanently contrary voice, disputing anything anyone else says).


Occasionally, they successfully blur the lines between studio artifice and Coens artifice; the scene where Gurney is rowed out to a Soviet sub (captained by one Dolph Lundgren) looks for all the world like a clip from one of the movies we’ve just seen Mannix viewing. Towards the end, the picture threatens to galvanise itself into something actually intriguing, as Hobie follows Gurney and happens upon Baird (all great Coen character names as usual). Yet this is the kind of spluttering uncertainty you get from a misfiring engine.


Everyone sequestered to this latest Coens conceit marvellous, even if they’re probably left wishing – like those who leap at the chance to work with Woody Allen – that this had been one of their zingers, rather than an also-ran. I haven’t mentioned Wayne Knight’s dodgy extra, Christopher Lambert’s incomprehensible Scandinavian director Arne Slessum, or Michael Gambon’s casually inviting narrator, but they’re fantastic. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is right-on-the-money, while Carter Burwell’s score may not be one of his classics, but it’s very recognisably a Carter Burwell score.


Where does Hail, Caesar! position itself in their illustrious oeuvre? Somewhere above The Ladykillers (underrated, but nevertheless their weakest) and about on par with the similarly uneven The Man Who Wasn’t There, probably. I’d argue the brothers are allowed an off-movie every decade or so, and they’re coming away from five-back-to-back great ones. Hail, Caesar! lacks the full-tilt effortlessness we’ve come to expect, yet still it stutters along, with them blithely disinterested in any misgivings anyone else may have. Which is an enviable position to occupy, but perhaps a slightly foolhardy one.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

The Black Panther is not someone to mess with.

Gringo (2018)
(SPOILERS) Gringo's problems stem from it trying too hard to be the kind of movie its makers have seen done better. It's doing its best to give off a studiously crazy/ frenetic tone, something accentuated by Christophe Beck's self-consciously quirky score. Throwing David Oyelowo's straight-edged pharmaceutical rep into the path of Mexican cartels and hitmen, Nash Edgerton's second feature is "one of those", the latest in a seemingly unremitting stream of low-budget hit-and-miss crime affairs, peppy enough to attract a supporting cast working for scale, but lacking the personality to stick in the mind for very long.