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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.


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