Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)
  • Time: 106 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Mystery
  • Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • Cast: Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill


Hail Caesar! Follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood fixer for Capitol Pictures in the 1950s, who cleans up and solves problems for big names and stars in the industry. But when studio star Baird Whitlock disappears, Mannix has to deal with more than just the fix.


  • Quirky and lingering, that’s the Coen brothers way. And with a certain talent in every frame, Hail, Caesar! is a tribute to the movies or a tribute to their love of movies. Containing sumptuous period detail, a surplus of big-name stars, and behind-the-scenes accounts reminiscent of Robert Altman’s The Player, “Caesar” goes back to the 1950’s film industry with Joel and Ethan Coen as its unequivocal tour guides. They weren’t alive when classical, Hollywood cinema was a mainstay. However, it feels like Minnesota’s favorite sons were actually there, in a former life sort of speak. Their characters talk quickly, their characters smoke tons of cigarettes (in public places no less), and even legendary actor Danny Kaye is mentioned. Ah, the good old days.

    Anyway, despite being semi-unfocused and somewhat erratic, Hail, Caesar! is expertly directed with every shot obtaining a level of film noir gleam. With its simplified diegesis, there is a little time to kill. The Coens give the audience halting scenes where actors show off an incredible skill set. All you gotta do is catch Alden Ehrenreich doing lasso work (with a plate of spaghetti and a rope) and Channing Tatum tap dancing his arse off. Amusing.

    Harboring a budget of $22 million, set in 1951, and dealing with antagonists straight from the communist party, Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (an excellent Josh Brolin). He’s the head of Capital Pictures and a quote unquote “fixer”. He oversees the budgets and attitudes of movie stars as well as keeping their scandalous behaviors out of the press. When his biggest acting commodity (Baird Whitlock played by George Clooney) gets kidnapped and put up for ransom, Mannix has to come up with $100,000 just to smooth things over. Things to look for in Joel and Ethan’s 100-minute opus: 1. cinematography of the highest order with Roger Deakins channeling residue a la Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. 2. a couple of neat sequences where Brolin’s Eddie is watching dailies (to a film buff like me, that’s interesting). 3. finally, Tilda Swinton plays twin, gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker. Fostering a ruthless and shallow demur, she makes today’s media seem like child’s play in comparison.

    In conclusion, if you’re obsessed with cinema (I know I am), intrigued by the ins and outs of Hollywoodland lingo, and want to revel in the Coen brothers strutting their movie within a movie pedigree, then Hail, Caesar! will cure your wintry blues. All I gotta say is “hail” yes! Rating: 3 stars.

    Of note: As mentioned earlier, tons of stars and Coen regulars inhabit little or almost no screen time via “Caesar!”. It’s as if they are doing a favor for their filmmaker buddies. Jonah Hill plays a surety agent for a production company, Frances McDormand plays a chain-smoking editor, Ralph Fiennes plays a patience-tested director, Scarlett Johansson plays an impregnated A-list actress, Dolph Lundgren plays a Soviet “submarine commander”, and Clancy Brown plays a co-star of a flick starring the Clooney trouper. With so many notable faces, I thought I saw John Turturro popping up as an extra. If you happen to read this review, correct me if I’m wrong.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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  • The Coens’ Hail Caesar may be the most serious comedy in the theatres today. It confronts our essential dilemma: how to live a life of faith and service in the corrupt modern world. 1950s Hollywood, of course, is the essence of modernity, projected images of virtue and the fantasy of piety.
    The two historic figures in this fiction embody two competing faiths. The Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a practicing Catholic. In the opening and late scenes he’s at confession, seeking absolution for having lied to his wife and relapsed into smoking. Even the priest advises that his daily confession is too much. Ironically, his confessed sins — however deeply troubling to him — are rather trivial for a man engaged 24/7 in abetting all sorts of sins and crimes, bribing the cops, paying off kidnappers and blackmailers. Not to mention neglecting his family and principles. Mannix’s religion is quite safely detached from his daily deeds. But he is ardently faithful.
    The other, more marginal historic figure is Prof. Marcuse (John Bluthal), presumably Herbert Marcuse, the influential Marxist philosopher who advocates social revolution against the suppression by organized religion. Instead of rendering unto Caesar (that’s the historic Caesar, not the one in the Hollywood world inhabited by the actor George Clooney plays) the things that are Caesar’s, or giving them to the church, the communists would grab them to share out among the citizenry. For that they need to overthrow the religious, economic and political order. (Aside, pace G.K. Chesterton: The trouble with socialism as with Christianity is that it has never really been tried.)
    Mannix’s dilemma takes the form of a choice between two jobs. He can continue as the amoral and illegal Hollywood fixer or he can accept the far easier and financially more rewarding career offered by Lockheed Airlines. Mannix asks which job would better serve God’s will. Flying the civilian skies or the even more secular job of protecting the Hollywood stars in the profane Hollywood galaxy. Spoiler alert: he picks the latter profane.
    Confirming the film’s religious core is the scene where Mannix convenes a panel of religious leaders to advise upon (i.e., throw their public support behind) the film about Christ. The Greek orthodox priest doesn’t “believe” the chariot race. The Protestant accepts it all. The Catholic priest quibbles over the nature of Jesus. Of course, the rabbi finds the whole discussion pointless but won’t skip the chance to debate and kibbitz. Still, an end credit respects the rabbi’s first argument: “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.” The director’s version was “Squint against the grandeur.”
    Mannix realizes his calling when he slaps the kidnapped star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) out of his newly injected Communism. Serving God is serving man. And vice (so to speak) versa. Mannix finds a religious fulfillment in maintaining the public’s dream life and his coworkers’ and bosses’ successful careers. He will serve God on earth not in the Lockheed skies. The secular faith emanates from the last shot, a water tower reading “Behold” against the (unusually) clear Hollywood skies.
    Two points validate Mannix’s choice. His pitch from Lockheed’s rep includes the promising future the company sees in the recent atomic bomb tests on Bikini Beach. So the easier job may not be cleaner after all.
    And for all its tawdriness, greed and sinfulness, Hollywood is still capable of enriching its audience’s spiritual lives. This we see when the crew and cast members are individually enrapt and moved to tears by the climactic speech by the converted centurion (Clooney as Whitlock). Whitlock smashes the illusion by forgetting the climactic word: “faith.” But until then, his performance has created a moment in which even the most hardened observers, the people working the falseness of the set, are delivered into belief. Hollywood’s illusion can be as spiritual as the religions’.
    Mannix’s division within himself has two parallels. Tilda Swinton plays two twin sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, furiously rival gossip columnists, whose difference is masked by their posturing and garb. As Mannix is a man torn in two, the twins are two in one. They are also a secular parody of the contentious division of the Trinity.
    The film itself is a division. It bears the title of the film the Clooney character is making. But frequently a scene erupts from another film, another genre, like the underwater ballet or the sailors’ homoerotic dance number. Here we don’t know if the scene is “life” or a film staging. The film is less the traditional “film within a film” than an exercise in cinematic delusion, a celebration of classic Hollywood fantasy. Hence the variety of popular genres, like the musical, western, romance.
    We’re always watching the artifice of reality here. In “real life” scenes actors do their performance pieces, like the actress with her illicit photo shoot, the cowboy star entertaining himself with his lariat act, then his date with a noodle version. Though an executive not an actor, Mannix spends his life “performing” to keep his vagrant charges’ private lives on the studio script. Hence his machinations around an unwed pregnant star.
    When the classical actor played by Ralph Fiennes tries to coax a salon performance out of the drawling cowboy star, we have two superb actors performing bad acting. “Would that it were so simple” proves impossibly complicated.
    But there is also the reality of artifice, like the dramatic effect of Whitlock’s performance. More deeply, the film presents Hollywood as the dream factory that sustains the ambivalent social effects of capitalism. When the Communists abduct and brainwash Whitlock their naive idealism threatens the fabric of American life. So there is virtue and social responsibility in Mannix’s recovery of the vacuous star, his defence of American capitalism and his choice of serving God through Hollywood rather than through Lockheed.
    This is a very timely film in two respects. First, it rebuts Trumbo, which sanitized its hero by downplaying the foolishness of the Hollywood communists whose faith ignored the shocking reality of Stalinism, the show trials, the dangerous spies. They were the blind idealists Lenin had called “useful idiots.” This film presents Hollywood’s Communist scriptwriters as those idiots, dazzled by their own cliches and rhetoric. When they lose the satchel with the $100,000 blackmail money their useful idiocy proves futile and absurd.
    Secondly, the film’s treatment of Hollywood piety is a timely corrective to the Republican campaign for the presidency. Their entire slate, especially leaders Trump and Cruz, project the fake faith and spurious piety the commercialized religion of Hollywood plays out here. They’ll feel unjustly justified that the gay director proves a Commie.

  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: The comedy can be found in the Coen Brother’s film, but it’s sporadic mayhem at best, thanks mostly to a wonderful cast.

    GRADE: C+

    PLOT SUMMARY: Eddie Mannix is a fixer. He puts out the fires so easily ignited by Hollywood’s petulant starlets of the 50’s and the dim-witted celebrities of filmdom’s finest. From unwanted pregnancies to trouble on the sets, he is your main man. Each day brings its latest casualty and more ulcers for this studio head. However, complications begin to mount as one of the studio’s leading man becomes part of a kidnap plot that becomes more absurd by the hour, as Eddie goes about his daily routine, questioning life itself.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Journey back to the heyday of the Hollywood film studios and their bevy of stars who lit up the movie screens! The Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail Caesar, still has its stars acting aces, production values that wow, but not much to laud with a tiresome plot that barely comes together.

    The film is an homage to the old Hollywood system, but it rarely builds to an absurd laugh-out-loud farce, rather settling on intellectualizing debates about faith and redemption during the Red Scare of the 50’s. (However, I did have a non-stop grin on my face throughout the film.) The direction by Ethan and Joel Coen remains solid as they mock and worship these celebrities with their high cheekbones and chiseled physiques, ill-equipped to handle life, let alone fame and fortune. On the studio’s roster are such choice characters, both behind and in front of the cameras. At the forefront is Eddie Mannix (a highly effective Josh Brolin) whose 24 / 7 job at Capital Pictures Studio is to put out the many fires ignited by the studios’ acting talents (?). His clients include: DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams bombshell who wisecracks and grouses her way through every take, Hobie Doyle (a breakout performance by Alden Ehrenreich, channeling a Sal Mineo vulnerability to perfection) as an empty-headed Western star, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, making Gene Kelly proud) playing a song and dance man, and Baird Whitlick (an amusing George Clooney) as a rugged leading man type starring in a ripe religious epic in the style of vintage Ben Hur but without the class.

    Adding to Mannix’s problematic issues are Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as a temperamental film director (but then who wouldn’t be with this stars), Tilda Swinton as dueling gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, and in an all-too-short scenes, C.C. Calhoun (a funny Frances McDormand) as a frustrated film editor and an unethical agent named Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill). The ensemble is flawless and wondrously dopey, but they are let down by a screenplay that never aligns or engages its characters.

    The film succeeds in mixing other genres (film noir, musical comedy, screwball comedy, Biblical spectacle) and this pastiche are the film’s highlights. As long as the film remains on the studio stages, the film works. Were Hail Caesar! to focus more on these marvelous parodies, the movie would be a memorable classic bit about Old Hollywood. Instead it veers off course with subplots about Communist writers, a kidnapping plot, and religious affirmation scenes which goes on far too long without much merriment or laughs. The tone becomes stiflingly serious and labored and one wants more time spent on the wacky antics from these Hollywood types lost on the film set.

    Still, there are so many standout moments to revel: Tatum’s energetic six minute tongue-definitely-in-cheek dance number entitled “No Dames”, Johansson’s Busby Berkeley synchronized swim spoof, McDormand’s all-too-short stint, Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy’s lack of intellectual sparring with the overtly sophisticated Fiennes, Clooney’s exasperated buffoonery, etc. This ensemble creates vivid and interesting characters ready to leap to screwball heights but they are weighed down by a screenplay that misses so many golden opportunities to become a riotous comedy. The parodies are spot-on, the plot is duller than need be.

    As previously stated, the film is a well-crafted look at Tinseltown, with kudos to the astute production design by Jess Gonchor, lovely period costumes by Mary Zophres, and Technicolor-inspired camerawork by the prolific Roger Deakins.

    If the plot itself tends to meander all over the place and, too often, loses some of its light-weight footing, the small pockets of perfected glee from the Coen’s inspired cast of delightful characters make the film a pleasant enough diversion. Here, it’s the individual scenes of the film, the movie-within-the movie segments, which more than make up for the many missteps in this disappointing film.

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  • Ethan and Joel Coen are not known to pussyfoot around things in their new film, Hail Caesar. When they decided to make a movie about the movie industry just before the studio system died they didn’t go half way. Sequences in this movie are from the glorious 50’s epics, Esther Williams swim-a-thons, and, of course, the musicals. There is one, overall story line but there are a number of smaller, shorter story lines that are worth your time as well. The characters are directly from movies of the time or an amalgam of two or three stars who were popular back then.
    It is an exercise in futility to try to separate the writing and the directing in a Coen film. I’m convinced many of the directing choices are made as they write so one is blended into the other. This film is tightly structured and although it may look like improvising is going on I doubt it because the Coens know what they want to hear even if they have to get someone else to make it up occasionally. What they want is so spot on to the period and the story that I can’t imagine there was much improvisation.
    Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the head of Capital Pictures, who only has to answer to the board in NYC. Brolin’s Eddie loves what he does from making the deals to keeping the stars in line. This is an old time studio head and Brolin makes the character real. George Clooney is one of the studio’s big stars, Baird Whitlock, who is finishing up a bible epic. I had to laugh because we saw a preview for an Easter film this year that was almost the same as the pretend one in this movie. Clooney plays Baird with the open simple minded lack of complexity that can still be found in movie actors today. Then there’s Alden Ehrenreich who plays cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle. In an effort to make a movie they move Doyle from the simple singing cowboy movies he normally makes to a drawing room relationship story. Ehrenreich is great as he goes from a confident cowboy who knows what he has to do to being lost in the drawing room to being himself. Ehrenreich has to play three different characters and he pulls it off beautifully.
    The woman, as was common in those days, don’t get the same screen time as the men but the acting is just as good. Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, the Esther Williams type character and she’s marvelous jumping from smiling and selling it to angry and unhappy. Tilda Swinton plays both a Hedda Hopper and a Louella Parsons type gossip columnist and she is as scary as the real ones could be. By far the funniest performance is from Francis McDormand in the one scene character of film editor C. C. Calhoun.
    Other performers in support or cameo characters are Ralph Fiennes as the director Laurence Laurentz. He plays it absolutely seriously and that makes it so funny. Channing Tatum is Burt Gurney who dances up a storm in a suggestive but very entertaining dance sequence. Jonah Hill is Joseph Silverman who is a notary, among other things. Then there are the actors with cameos. Robert Picardo as a Rabbi, Allison Pill as Eddie’s wife, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz,and Wayne Knight, as members of a communist group, Christopher Lambert, and Dolph Lundgren.
    This is a movie where everything is exactly where it needs to be and the actors bring the characters to life. I give it 4 brief cases out of 4. After you’ve seen the movie look up the source material and find out who really did what.

  • Not quite the hooray for Hollywood it must have been on paper, the latest feature from the Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar!, may be both catnip and anathema for the filmmakers’ fans and those who are more than a touch familiar with the Old Hollywood the film gently and sardonically mocks.

    The Coen Brothers have been paying tribute to films churned out by the Hollywood Dream Factory since their first film, Blood Simple, an exemplary noir that would have comfortably sat alongside such classic noirs like Out of the Past and The Postman Always Rings Twice. If the DNA of their influences was too subtle to be imprinted on viewers who saw Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, or The Big Lebowski, then something like The Hudsucker Proxy , with its frenzied pace, rat-a-tat dialogue, and the ghost of Rosalind Russell channeling itself through Jennifer Jason Leigh, was an out-and-out unabashed resurrection of the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks (some of the most important and influential filmmakers to remain criminally underrated today).

    It must have delighted the Coen Brothers to no end to happen upon a clever way to bring together not only so many disparate genres but also such a number of back stories and call-outs to the people both in front of and behind the camera. Hail, Caesar! unfolds over the course of one very long day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a production executive who is also an all-around fixer for 1950s Capitol Pictures. Mannix, whose name is taken from a real MGM fixer, is first seen in a confessional, his face sliced by a shard of light. It’s part of his daily routine to unburden himself of minor infractions – sneaking cigarettes, lying to his wife about quitting smoking – before moving on to do damage control for many of the studio’s biggest stars.

    Back in the day, performers signed seven-year contracts with the studios, who exerted an extraordinary amount of control over their stars’ professional and personal lives. Stars were investments and they were to be protected at all costs. Studios were powerful enough to get the cops and gossip columnists on their side, and so Mannix interrupting a late-night photo shoot featuring one of the studio’s stars in a compromising position ends with the cops colluding with Mannix on the cover-up. On the professional front, studios were wont to shuffle their stars from one genre to another (stars had no say as suspension awaited if they refused), and so singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) gives an aw-shucks shrug when told he’s to be in a sophisticated drawing-room drama.

    Part of the fun to be had with the film is matching the parade of characters with their real-life inspirations. Take DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the bathing beauty whose aquatic musicals have made her one of the studio’s most popular stars. On the surface, she’s modeled after Esther Williams (whose talents were truly unrivaled – sure, you had tons of stars who could either sing, dance, or act their hearts out, but no one could perform underwater choreography and still look glamourous), but the character’s previous marriages to a gangster and a bandleader align more with Lana Turner’s romantic history, and the solution to DeeAnna’s pregnancy is straight out of the Loretta Young playbook.

    Yet that same match game can be a dispiriting one. Doyle seems an amalgam of Kirby Grant, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, but the attempts to make an urbane lead out of someone with so limited a range may call to mind the few times when John Wayne traded in his dusty rags for a tuxedo. However, pairing Doyle with the Carmen Miranda-like Carlotta Valdez (Verónica Osorio) also recalls Gary Cooper’s tempestuous romance with Lupe Velez. Cooper himself started out in the westerns before transitioning into one of the most popular leading men of his time. Doyle’s treatment verges just this side of mean, and the depiction of him as a simpleton is a bit disrespectful of both Wayne and Cooper.

    There’s no doubt that the Coen Brothers have lavished heaps of love on their recreations of Hollywood’s musical extravaganzas, and indeed DeeAnna’s spectacular mermaid musical and Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) sailors-on-leave song-and-dance (shades of Gene Kelly in both On the Town and Anchors Aweigh) are pure, frothy highlights. However, let’s be realistic. DeeAnna’s honking voice would have never passed muster in the sound era, and Gurney’s obviously homoeroticised number would never have been released as is. Yes, the filmmakers pay homage in order to point out the artifice, but they don’t necessarily stay faithful to the demands of that artifice. Considering that the filmmakers and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins take such meticulous care in replicating each genre, it’s a bit disappointing when they frame certain scenes like Gurney’s dance number in ways that were not standard for musicals of the era. Overhead shots and slanted angles compromise the fluidity of the number and, interestingly, Gurney’s musical is at its best during a moment when Gurney and two of the other dancers are seated on the bar stools and performing a soft shoe. The camera doesn’t move – why should it when all the movement necessary is being done within the frame?

    The Coen Brothers blur the line between reality and manufactured reality. The audience is always aware of the fabrications, and even the scenes that take place within the so-called reality seem like outtakes from other films being produced by Capitol Pictures: Mannix is the star of his own existential noir; the plot involving matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters is a skewed variation on Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels; and even the entire film itself can be regarded as a subversive religious epic (Mannix’s faith in the movies wavers and even the point of movies themselves are called into question).

    The essential problem with Hail, Caesar! is that whilst individual scenes and performers delight (Ralph Fiennes’ exasperated director playing Henry Higgins to Ehrenreich’s Eliza Doolittle, Tilda Swinton in every scene she’s in, Frances McDormand doing her best Thelma Ritter, the moonlit submarine scene), the film itself is utterly disjointed. Mannix is meant to be the ostensible glue holding together this miscellany of cartoonish characters, but this is just too much of a circus for one ringleader to handle. The film flits from genre to genre, tone to tone, character to character, and it becomes both too much and not enough. The filmmakers’ passion for their material actually ends up suffocating the life out of it.

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  • The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are back with another 50’s set piece and a film about a film and fans have all reasons to be excited for Hail, Caesar! Director, directors in this case, have a particular style about them that they bring with them to all their films. For better of worse, movie goers pick up on this style and keep going to their films due to this. This is particular true for the Coen Brothers and Hail, Caesar! is packed with the duo’s style.

    Four-time Oscar (R)-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Fargo) write and direct Hail, Caesar!, an all-star comedy set during the latter years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum, Hail, Caesar! follows a single day in the life of a studio fixer who is presented with plenty of problems to fix.

    So what is this style that I speak of? Cracked comedy, lasting characters, and rich cinematography are the highlights and all three are present in Hail, Caesar!

    This time around we do not have lasting characters but a lasting ensemble as Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill all join in for the fun. Not all characters have a major role or have more than a few lines but no matter role they played, that Coen humor was implemented and you will for sure remember these actors’ characters due to it.

    As for the humor, majority of the jokes are references to things that you might need to look up to fully get as Hail, Caesar! is an ode to the golden era of Hollywood. For example, I had very little knowledge of Imperial Gardens entering the film and quick search on Google after the film had me fully understood one of the jokes within the film. But hey, I did catch the Carlotta Valdez and Herbert Marcuse reference on my first watch.

    There are roughly five films within this film and none of them are the center piece for Hail, Caesar! and yet none of them are what make this film so enjoyable. Heck the mystery in the center of it all, the disappearance of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, is an after thought as well. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, as the fixer of Capitol Studios, brings this film altogether and leads us through some great laughs on the way.

    If you catch the references or not, the jokes do stick and the film is not ignorant enough to ignore viewers who might not catch all the jokes as everyone will leave Hail, Caesar! with a smile on their face.

  • When a film-maker builds up such a formidable body of work, it’s all the more crushing when their next project falls somewhat flat. The Coen brothers Joel and Ethan have been churning out genre-bending masterpieces ever since 1984 with Blood Simple, and maintained a healthy independent spirit until they were eventually noticed by mainstream Hollywood with 1996’s Fargo. Ever since, despite still serving up great work such as No Country for Old Men (2007) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), their filmography has been occasionally blighted by bewildering misfires such as the double-whammy of Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). Sadly, they’ve done it again with Hail, Caesar!.

    It’s obvious that the Coens hold a keen interest in the old Hollywood system of the 1940’s and 50’s. They were satirising the world they view with a certain curiosity and perhaps a little disdain back in 1991 with the outstanding Barton Fink. Yet while that film portrayed a bleak, subdued world full of madness and loneliness as John Turturro’s titular script-writer struggled with his work and his own demons, Hail, Caesar! is the glitzy, garish world of big-budget biblical epics and movie stars with everything to hide. Studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man to try and hold it all together, from having to shield his actors’ shady pasts from pesky twin journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both Tilda Swinton) to handling an organisation of academic-type communists who have kidnapped his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

    Working almost like a series of loosely-connected vignettes, the Coens also weave numerous sub-plots into the mix. Mannix must also deal with the issue that one of his leading ladies, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johnansson) is unmarried but with child and can no longer fit into her mermaid costume. Singing cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a pretty face more accustomed to strumming the guitar and riding horseback, is thrown into a drama role at the last minute, much to the frustration of sophisticated director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). There are smaller roles also for Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill in what is an unnecessarily bulky ensemble that the Coens struggle to keep a grasp of. With no real sense of direction, Hail, Caesar! often feels like a collection of clips from separate, better movies.

    Despite the narrative flaws, there’s still plenty to savour. Those distinctly ‘Coen-eque’ moments are peppered throughout, with Hobie’s awkward first day on set and Channing Tatum’s musical tap-dance being particular standouts. Although Brolin excels and Clooney makes for a very convincing wimp, Ehrenreich is the one who steals the movie as the extremely likeable dimwit who may actually be the only one paying attention. He demonstrates great comic timing and all the charm of the western idols his character is paying homage to, and he seems the perfect fit for a young Han Solo in Disney’s as-yet untitled origin story. The film may have even worked better as a whole with Hobie as the lead and doing away with several side-stories. Instead, it is an unfocused splurge of good ideas rather toothlessly executed but wonderfully performed. Definitely lower-league Coen.

    Rating: 3/5

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