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

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

To our glorious defeat.

The Mouse that Roared (1959) (SPOILERS) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove . Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never that impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux- Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs with that, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.