When in Rome.
There are great Coen Brothers movies that amount to nothing and then Coen Brothers movies that just amount to nothing. That’s not to suggest that the latter of these two categories lack in worth but to highlight the Coen Brothers’ affinity for convolution and narrative insignificance. Plots that amount to nothing. The brothers acknowledged as much openly in Burn After Reading. In some cases, such as the remarkable The Big Lebowski, the style compliments the result. The sum of the parts are engaging enough that narrative coherence is not only unimportant, it’s the point. The plot of Hail, Caesar! is disjointed and seemingly purposeless but the vignettes that constitute the film just aren’t engaging enough to form a satisfying whole.
The Coens appear to have something to convey regarding the shaky relationship between art and commerce in Hollywood but they’re not quite ready to be clear about what that might be. If it’s a joke, we’re not in on it. If there’s a message to any of it, it’s poorly communicated. Moments of clarity are diluted by lifeless segments that feign life. There are attempts to recreate the energy of cinema in the 1950s that lack energy and fall short of the level emulation of emulation required to elicit nostalgia. The recreations are almost like classical Hollywood films, but not quite. The real problem with Hail, Caesar is that it’s a film that suggests spirit and fun without ever consistently expressing either. The wit and the skill that usually pervade even the lesser Coen Brother’s film are lacking.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a powerful studio executive, largely responsible for fixing internal studio problems. One such problem is the disappearence of mega-star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in the studio’s new Biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar”. Another problem is the unplanned pregnancy of starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). Another is the reconsideration of the image of a popular Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), into a dramatic actor. And there’s Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a Gene Kelly-esque star with curious motivations. And there’s twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), that punctuate the film with little impact. And that’s Hail, Caesar. There’s no cause and effect. Things happen without correlation or purpose and most of it isn’t particularly intriguing.
It’s a remarkably flat film, especially considering the Coen filmography. It meanders, whereas even weaker films from the brothers falter because of their enthusiasm. On several occasions, we see Mannix sitting in screening rooms, backlit by a projector as he watches unfinished film. “Devine Presence To Be Filmed,” one of the place cards for the new Baird Whitlock Biblical epic declares. But that’s exactly what Hail, Caesar feels like – an unfinished picture. It bubbles with personality and energy in moments but lacks finishing touches that lend a film purpose. At the very least, it appears that the Coens enjoyed making Hail, Caesar immensely.