By: Anthony Miglieri
The Coen Brothers, always ones to examine and parody various film genres, set their sights on 1950s Hollywood with their latest film, Hail Caesar! Although the Brothers are dealing with familiar material and have gathered an impeccable cast and crew, Hail Caesar! is very entertaining but does not manage to reach the ecstatic heights that their previous masterpieces have proven they can reach.
The bulk of the action in Hail Caesar! revolves around the kidnapping of major movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of a historical “prestige picture” entitled Hail Caesar. There are several other subplots, including one involving an inconveniently pregnant leading actress (Scarlett Johansson) and another concerning a young Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich) being cast in a high profile director’s (Ralph Fiennes) film. The element that holds the various threads together is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” whose job it is to keep the studio’s stars and productions in line.
Unlike most contemporary filmmakers, the Coen Brothers have the ability to tear down and pay genuine homage to their subjects at the same time. Their deep understanding of film genres and other artistic trends are essential to this balance that they strike so well and often, and the cinematic siblings’ consistently original scripts deliver their visions to the screen with uncommon clarity. Past Coen masterworks like Barton Fink (1991) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) are prime examples of their delicate expertise in deconstructing the film and music industries in particular. Considering the Coens’ past success in wrestling with similar subject matter, the ‘50s film industry-set Hail Caesar! fits perfectly into their filmography, but it lacks the thematic and emotional weight of their best work.
Make no mistake, Hail Caesar! is a beautiful film. However, its beauty lies mainly within the immaculate period-accurate production and the amazing work of cinematographer and frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins. In other words, the style, though truly delightful, trumps the substance. Instead of delving into deep philosophical angst (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man) or ruminating on the enigmatic nature of violence in the world (No Country for Old Men), Joel and Ethan Coen operate in a lower key with their new movie. With Hail Caesar!, they create a panoramic landscape of a time and place and pick out various aspects to hit upon, namely Communist paranoia, scandalous sexuality, parasitic journalism, and a dash of religious controversy. Despite the impressive quantity and quality of ideas woven into this movie, the time and depth devoted to each only amount to glimpses. Like the many film-buff references to be found in Hail Caesar!, the numerous plots are merely peppered throughout the movie instead of being made into a satisfying meal.
In Hail Caesar!, all the cogs are in place and hum along enjoyably, but they never seem to amount to a truly meaningful whole. The direction, production, and all the performances (especially the hilariously dignified Fiennes and the guilelessly charming Ehrenreich), are all technically nearly flawless, but the Coens should have either narrowed or lengthened their material to create a more cohesive statement. There are several great sequences providing insights into lavish ‘50s productions and ideals, but, uncharacteristic of the Coens, the film seems to evaporate in the mind once one leaves the theater, leaving little to mull over. Perhaps for another, less assuming filmmaker, Hail Caesar! would not leave an air of dissatisfaction, but as a Coen Brothers picture, it is slightly underwhelming. All that means is that viewers are left with a slick, swift, and highly enjoyable 100 minutes, and that is no inconsiderable feat.