HAIL, CAESAR! Review
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Genre: Drama, Musical
HAIL, CAESAR!, the 18th feature film by arguably America’s greatest dynamic directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen, should be much, much better than it actually is. Despite a stellar cast given colorful characters to portray, the standard excellence audiences have come to expect of Roger Deakins, and some of the funniest scenarios the Coens have ever conceived (in terms of individual scenes, at any rate), the overall film has a flat, lifeless quality that renders it one of the pair’s most forgettable features yet.
This, unfortunately, is primarily due to the Coens’ retreading of territory they’ve previously exhausted, but on a scale that is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. The narrative focuses on a put-upon man, in this case a 1950s studio executive named Eddie Mannix (portrayed competently by Josh Brolin), who is forced to untangle the complicated kidnapping of his studio’s brightest star Baird Whitlock (played by a delightfully self-deprecating George Clooney). Regular viewers of the Coens’ work will recognize this as a remarkably similar narrative to those of FARGO and the BIG LEBOWSKI, both of which also follow a protagonist down the rabbit hole of resolving ill-conceived kidnappings. However, even though these two films were made successively, the BIG LEBOWSKI has rarely been accused of being the same as FARGO. This is because both of these films create an overall oeuvre of setting, characters, and tone that differ entirely and create wholly unique viewing experiences. With HAIL, CAESAR!, it becomes difficult to overlook the fact that the Coens are reusing old tricks, but to less spectacular effects.
Pictured: Not a ransom note stitched together by desperate nihilists…yawn
In both FARGO and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the Coens did a masterful job immersing their audience in the distinctive worlds they are set in; their faithful depictions of Los Angeles culture and Minnesotan culture are so rich that it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in the films, even after repeated viewings. Additionally, Marge Gunderson and Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski are two of the most iconic characters in recent film history. The sheer joy of watching them try to unravel the plots they find themselves thrust into makes the films breathe with a sense of purpose from one scene to the next. HAIL, CAESAR! should work on the same principle ‒ put the audience in the world of 1950s Hollywood and allow us to follow a true Hollywood executive, and we should get swept away for every moment of the film. Unfortunately, the film’s editing and comedic timing lack much of the razzle-dazzle and pizzazz required to faithfully capture the magic of that era. The film doesn’t move with the same snappy urgency as Channing Tatum’s nimble feet.
Snap to it, sailor
This has to do with the unflappability of Brolin’s Mannix. Yes, he expresses feelings of being overwhelmed by his situation, but we never truly doubt his ability to overcome it. He is too cool, too calm, and too reasonable to be toppled by his circumstance. In FARGO, Marge may generally be a fantastic detective, but her pregnancy puts her at a distinct disadvantage that it seems entirely plausible that she will never put two and two together to solve her case. In THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the Dude is too inebriated for most of the film to seem capable of much of anything, let alone recovering a kidnapped trophy wife. Even in A SERIOUS MAN, Larry Gopnik’s own steadfast belief in reason in an increasingly unreasonable world threatens to obliterate him entirely. Eddie Mannix, by comparison, will take on any challenge, and his failures will at the end of the day be of little consequence to him or anyone else. With nothing truly at stake for Eddie, it’s hard to feel compelled to invest in his struggles for an hour and forty minutes.
Perhaps this was the intention of HAIL, CAESAR! ‒ to make a lighter film of little true consequence, a much needed change of pace after the oppressive heaviness of films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The individual scenes of HAIL, CAESAR! are regularly delightful and mostly feel like loving parody of the absurdity of the motion picture business. It’s not that HAIL, CAESAR! is terrible, it’s just that it frustratingly revisits the stomping grounds we have already come to expect from the Coen brothers, and to less impressive results.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend