I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.
Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.
Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist. As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.
While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.
The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.
I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.
But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.
It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.
Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.
VERDICT – 3 STARS
In spurts I would agree. I wish the humor wasn’t so sporadic.
You review is actually music to my eyes. It appears your take on Hail Caesar falls in line with the general consensus. I’m an odd duck. I like the Coen Brothers work yet my favorite films of theirs are not the common ones people gush over. I love True Grit, The Ladykillers and Barton Fink. So this sounds like another one that I’m going to really enjoy. As long as it’s not bad, I’m good!
Hmmm, I don’t know. I’m a huge Coen brothers fan too and I really appreciate both True Grit and Barton Fink. This is a far, far cry from both. This is such light satire but it is all over the map. So many side storylines that are started but never fleshed out. I really see it as a collage of really fun scenes but barely a thread connecting them.
I was going to see this tonight, but I had an opportunity to eat at a nice restaurant instead and chose conversation over the theater ticket. I REALLY want to love the film, and yours is the first review I’ve read, Keith. I’m sure I will see it, but for now, will have to take your disappointment into consideration.
It was a frustrating review to write Cindy. I’m such a huge Coen brothers fan. And what makes this so difficult to digest is that it has several scenes that I thoroughly loved! There are just so many characters and plot lines that feel short changed.
I love the Coen brothers’ dedication to telling their story on their own terms. Here it feels scattered and a bit disjointed. Sigh….
I ♥ the Coen’s, too. Scattered and disjointed. I’m sorry to hear it. Truly.
But give it a look. There are so many sequences and conversations that a dripping with that quirky Coen style. I’ll see it again when it hits DVD.
Oh, I’d never skip their films. I will wallow in the good scenes and try to forgive the missteps with the overall composition. 🙂
We definitely share an opinion on this one. Great performances with some decent humor here and there, but I certainly left wanting a bit more, especially considering this one was following up the excellent Inside Llewyn Davis.
So you found it lacking too? I’m glad to hear I’m not alone. Man, I wanted to love this movie. But as it turns out I’m left feeling a bit perplexed with some of their choices.
Yeah I agree. I thought it had laughs but a lot fell flat. A mixed bag at best
Indeed. A strange movie and not so much due to its content but its structure, particularly some of the script decisions.
I’ve only watched No country for old men and I thought it was a little quirkier than the usual run of the mill crime thriller. I really think it’s a little overrated though I loved Bardem’s character and what he represented, as a natural force of nature. I’ve heard Miller’s and Fargo are good so I’m gonna find some time to watch them. Pretty interested in this one as well! But this is a very detailed review, and I’ll have to bear your words in mind!
Thanks for reading. You’ll get a chuckle out of this – “No Country” is one of my favorite movies of all time. One of the few 5 star reviews I’ve written. I guess you could say I love everything about it. Fargo and Miller’s are both great too but in very different ways. Those two are great examples of the Coen brothers’ diversity when it comes to filmmaking.
Haha we all have different tastes so I understand… But I really wanna know why it’s one of your favourites!
You’re right. That’s what makes movies and talking about movies great. Here’s a review I wrote for it a while back. I’ve been meaning to go back and correct a couple of things and tidy it up but it does share my enthusiasm for the film:
Great review bro. You come at this with a balanced approach. I’m just a little disappointed that it doesn’t quite work overall. That said, I’m still very eager to see it. The Coens always manage to deliver something.
I appreciate that bro. I struggled finding the right words for this one. As a fellow fan of the Coens you definitely needs to see it. As you mentioned, they always manage something special. There are some moments here that are hilarious and that will stick with you. But so many storylines feel shortchanged and several characters simply feel like opportunities to cast a well-known face. A bit frustrating.
I find their biggest misfire so far has been The Ladykillers but for as much criticism as Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading took, I still really enjoyed them. If this is on par with them then I’m sure I’ll be happy enough.
I don’t think this is Ladykillers level but I actually like Burn After Reading better than Hail, Caesar! I think.
What I don’t understand is when they ask Caeser or Classic? I tell the waitress just a salad. I just want a salad.
No Claude, this is strictly about the movie. Not edible things.
Nice review Keith. That’s disappointing to hear that this isn’t up to the Coen brothers’ usual high standards but as you say even a subpar Coen brothers film is much better than most movies that come out today. I’m hoping to watch Hail Caesar this or next weekend.
Thanks man. Anxious to get your thoughts on it. It does so many good things so I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it, but it is a bit of a letdown.
The reviews have been so good for this so far. I’m surprised to see your tepid reaction Keith so I’ll keep my expectations in check.
Definitely see it. Several really good scenes and some good performances. It just doesn’t all gel.
Hey Keith! I haven’t always been a huge fan of Coens, but this might be their most accessible movie, for better or worse. I might actually give this a slightly higher rating than you, but maybe because I was far more entertained by it than I thought I would.
I did like a lot of it, but I thought so many characters and their side stories were terribly underdeveloped. And there were a couple of moments where I was flat out bored. That is something I rarely equate with their movies. I just had an up and down experience with it I guess.
Disappointing to hear. The Coens are by far my favourite filmmakers. It is interesting though as what puts you off doesn’t sound like it’d put me off as much. Plus, I seem to be the only person who thinks BURN AFTER READING is their best and funniest film, so maybe I’ll love it!
Great review btw, you really write well without overstating things
Thanks so much Jordan. The Coens are among my very favorites too. I know some people trash it but I think Burn After Reading is a lot of fun. No Country and Raising AZ are probably my favorites, I adore Fargo, Miller’s, Blood Simple, etc etc etc.
This one just didn’t click. There are so many scenes that are a lot of fun on their own. But as a whole the film doesn’t quite gel for me.
Makes sense. Hopefully the I like the comedy so much that the whole narrative doesn’t bother me as much. But its good to read something like this, it checks my expectations a bit. I still have to wait till the 25th for it to release down under =/ So I’m guessing I’ll be reading more reviews before I get to see it myself!
I know I sound like a broke record, but release schedules are so ridiculous and frustrating!
Oh don’t worry about sounding repetitive, I bitch about it all the time!! All the awards season movies don’t come out here till late Jan, early-mid Feb. Steve Jobs only just released on the 4th, Brooklyn isn’t even out yet.
But hey, at least we get the movies -eventually-!
It’s disappointing to hear that the movie doesn’t “click”, as you put it – and you’re not the only reviewer I’ve heard that from. Such a great premise!! Ah well, I’m still going to see it because I can’t NOT see it. 🙂
And you should. Several truly wonderful and fun sequences.
Well said. This is fun in spots (and looks amazing) but as a whole? Didn’t feel like a cohesive movie. Rather fluffy and nice to watch, but nothing of substance.
Exactly. Its funny, I’ll remember several of the individual scenes. Really liked them. But the movie probably won’t stick with me as a whole.
we see eye to eye pretty much on this one, Keith. my film review just about shared the same sentiments, but in my world, a lesser Coen effort, is still better than most of these low brow, processed comedies today. I do like the Coens but I’m not a fan of every effort and I know that going in sometimes. nice write up, man!
I’m really anxious to see it again just to see if there were some things I missed. Strange movie to review. I adore some of those scenes, but as a whole its a little Rocky.
I think this has been a commonly misread film. The narrative disjointedness is the point. The Coens are far more concerned with exploring their themes. DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT, right? For me, the movie was about undermining these grand myths of religion and science and politics and nationalism so they can be replace with what, to the Coens, actually matters – film. This is a movie about important the stories we construct for ourselves truly are, whether or not they’re actually true.
In this way it’s a clever meshing of The Big Lebowski, in so far as it’s a farce and very post-modern, and Inside Llewyn Davis, where the Coens again explored the role of art in our culture. I thought it was a hit and I think it has staying power. There are layers here that are going to be paying off years down the line.
I do get what your saying and I saw a lot of what they are going for. I just don’t think they consistently explore their themes in interesting ways. Some of what they do is just superb. I just found it patchy and occasionally plain dull (which I never say about Coen flicks).
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