Hitting theaters nationwide this weekend, Universal Pictures brings us Hail, Caesar!, a comedy written/directed by Joel and Ethan Coen that’s both laborious and utterly confusing thanks to a poorly constructed premise.
The Coens will bring butts to the seats this weekend, but so will the all-star cast. The cast led by Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Coen staple (and wife of Ethan) Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. It reads like a slam dunk on paper but translates into a mess on screen.
Hail, Caesar! depicts 30 hours or so in the life of Eddie Mannix (Brolin) and on this day, he has some problems. The studio boss wants Mannix to promote singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) from B-western star to romantic comedy leading man, much to the confusion of Hobie himself. The aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is newly pregnant, which is making her mermaid costume painful to wear, and on top of that, she’s not sure if she’s interested in marrying the father of her child. This sort of refusal would result in a PR nightmare for a studio that prides itself on its All-American image. A pair of twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) are demanding answers to very sensitive questions about the studio’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Finally, and most crucially, Whitlock himself has been kidnapped from the set of his Biblical epic, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters who call themselves “The Future” in their terse ransom note.
What works in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ are those moments where the focus was on the screwball happenings transpiring on the set at Capitol Pictures. Tatum’s dance number in the sailor outfit is the type of humor that resonates. The number, reminiscent of Gene Kelly, is a well-manicured mixture of pelvic thrusts and lively dance moves, the kind of offbeat comedy we’ve come to expect from the Coen comedies. But for every moment like Channing’s dance number, there is a handful that falls flat. An example of this was Tilda Swinton’s character (the twin gossip columnists) which were meant to be a play on the sensationalist media that was running rampant in Hollywood but instead her moments on screen were only awkward, tedious, and rather pointless.The Coen brothers are sending up 1950’s Hollywood, but they’ve made a collection of parts that don’t make a cohesive picture.
What doesn’t work are the numerous character arcs. Between Tatum, Clooney, Brolin, and Swinton, we get upwards of five or more stories going on at the same time. On top of this, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ also attempts to tackle the topic of communism with a character arc involving the screenwriters being disgruntled communists. When a film has so many different characters all involved at the same time in ends up diluting the connection that the audience has with the movie. It just ended up being too much, and the slowly the film fizzled into white noise. An oddball sense of comedy and strange characters have long been the Coens’ trademarks, but the movie takes itself so painfully seriously at times that it stifles the laughter.
Hail, Caesar! could not decide what sort of movie it wanted to be. At times it seemed the Coens were making a film noir while at other points it veered toward the slapstick. Between the in-jokes, the numerous characters and storylines, and the inconsistent tone of the movie, Hail, Caesar! is suffering from an identity crisis.