"Hail, Caesar!" Review: Middle of the Pack
I'll be honest: The Coen brothers are extremely hit or miss for me. While some of their films are true masterpieces (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men), others are abject failures (Burn After Reading), and some are good, not great (True Grit, The Ladykillers, A Serious Man). Hail, Caesar! occupies that middle ground between abject failure and good, not great despite sporting the highest profile cast of any Coen Brothers film.
The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production at Capitol Pictures who also works as their fixer. He must keep the studio running smoothly all the while determining whether or not he should take an executive position from Lockheed. Along the way, he must handle a starlet pregnant out of wedlock (Scarlett Johansson), a missing leading man (George Clooney), and a country western star who is trying to branch out (Alden Ehrenreich). It's all in a day's work for Mannix who also struggles to reconcile his faith against his work and spending time with his family.
The film is well cast but, unfortunately, a majority of the actors aren't given much to do outside what feels like an extended cameo. Brolin is great as the hard-nosed Mannix, a role that he seems tailor-made for. He struggles with keeping his faith, all the while trying to do what is right for Capitol Pictures. It's an inner turmoil that is reminiscent of the Larry's main struggle in A Serious Man but not explored as deeply. Clooney is solid as Baird Whitlock even if his character arc doesn't amount to much of anything towards the resolution of the film. Johansson and some of the other star actors, namely Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes, are given so little to do that their roles could have been given to character actors rather than legitimate A-listers.
The real star of the film is Alden Ehrenreich as the simpleton Hobie Doyle. Having not seen Ehrenreich prior to Hail, Caesar! he was the real standout in a film full of mainstream names. He plays the western cowboy turned movie star role believably and with a fair amount of humor. Whether hamming it up on set during shooting or using a spaghetti noodle as a lasso, he steals the show every time he's onscreen. It's also refreshing to see that he doesn't allow his performance to become a caricature.
The real problem with the film is that it tries to do too much with its plot and succeeds at very little in the process. The main story arc with Mannix searching for Whitlock ends up resolving much too quickly and feels like a compelling idea that died on the page. It attempts to tie several of the character's stories together but fails to do so because there aren't any real stakes to the kidnapping. Once it's revealed who they are and what is driving them, the film tries to make a statement about the state of Hollywood then and now. However, due to the crowded nature of the film, there isn't enough time given to fully flesh out the message.
The film's set design and cinematographyhowever, are fantastic. The Coens certainly have an eye for detail when it comes to setting a scene and, considering the film is a period piece, everything looks great. I'll admit I'm a sucker for old Hollywood, and in terms of satisfying my Golden Age itch, it succeeds. Every scene is chock-full of period accurate costumes, props, and visuals that really sell the era the film inhabits.
Coen collaborator Roger Deakins is in top form even if his style is becoming a little formulaic and safe. Be that as it may, there's a reason he's so sought after in Hollywood as one of the premiere cinematographers: everything he does looks great and his work is consistent. It's not a knock at Deakins but when he's cinematographer you know what you are getting.
Hail, Caesar! isn't a failure, but neither is it groundbreaking . It sits in the comfortable middle of the Coens' filmography and that might be its biggest failure. It doesn't do nearly enough to be memorable a'la No Country but it doesn't fail spectacularly like Burn After Reading. It's a shame since the film has been in some form of production for over a decade now. As a critic, that's the worst spot a film can occupy: the forgettable middle ground. Sometimes being an abject failure isn't the worst possible thing as viewers having a strong opinion is better than none at all.