Past the Popcorn: Coens Miss Their Stride with Hail, Caesar!

by Jeff Walls

No director(s) in Hollywood so easily transition from drama to comedy and back again as the Coen Brothers.  The writing and directing duo take on old Hollywood in their latest comedy entitled Hail, Caesar!  It is a fascinating concept and there are individual scenes throughout the movie that are fantastic on their own, but the whole, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the sum of its parts.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” whose job it is to keep the studio’s cavalcade of stars out of trouble.  The whole movie takes place over the period of twenty-seven hours—bookended by two of Mannix’s daily visits to confession—in which he must deal with one starlet who has gotten pregnant and another who is posing for racy photos, a director who is unhappy with the young star that’s been forced upon him, and a major movie star who has been kidnapped by a strange organization called “The Future.”  All this is going on at the same time that he is entertaining a major job offer that would give him more time at home with his wife and son and the opportunity to retire in just ten years.

hail-caesar-insetThe movie tackles pretty much all the major genres of 1950s Hollywood as we visit the sets of the various movies being filmed at Capitol Pictures.  There is an On the Town-inspired musical, a Busby Berkeley-style swimming number, a western, a melodrama, and a biblical epic that shares the same subtitle as Ben-Hur: “A story of the Christ.”  Gossip columnists, chain-smoking editors, and the blacklist are also all featured in the Coen Brothers’ slice of old Hollywood.

There are many great moments in Hail, Caesar!, the most memorable of which is Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-style song-and-dance number.  The scene is wonderful, serving both as homage and spoof of classic Hollywood musicals and Channing Tatum is wonderful in it.  There’s also a great scene early in the movie in which Mannix has a meeting with a priest, a deacon, a rabbi, and a pastor to get their approval on his studio’s representation of Christ in their new epic.  Coen Brothers staple Frances McDormand also shows up for one brief hilarious scene in an editing suite where scarves can be deadly.

All of these scenes are great, but they each also represent the major problem with this movie: they do little to actually move the plot forward.  These scenes serve as examples of the trials and tribulations that Mannix must face at work every day, but they do little more than that.  They entertain, sure, but they also tend to throw the overall story out of its rhythm.  Meanwhile, the plotline that seems like it was supposed to be one of the movie’s most prominent—the kidnapping of George Clooney’s movie star—turns out to be one of the least interesting, which is unfortunate given that it takes up so much of the run time.

Although the movie meanders a little too much, there is still plenty in it to make it worth checking out.  The A-list cast all come to play.  It is always fun to see George Clooney goof it up in a Coen Brothers movie, Channing Tatum nails his Gene Kelly song-and-dance man, and Tilda Swinton hits it out of the park as twin gossip columnists.  Surprisingly, though, the true standout of the movie is the actor whose name is the least known: Alden Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a cowboy in real life and a cowboy in the movies.  He’s a big star doing what he does best—twirling rope, shooting bandits, and crooning ballads under the stars—but when he is thrust into the lead role of a tux-and-tails melodrama, the results are hilarious.  He has been put in the role because the studio wants to change his image, which is somewhat ironic because all we see in Hobie is the upstanding, wholesome character that the studio wants all the rest of its stars to appear to be.

Coen Brothers movies are always worth seeing and Hail, Caesar! is no exception.  They also often require multiple viewings to thoroughly appreciate, so even though it falls a little short of its promise upon initial viewing, I look forward to revisiting it in the future.

Hail, Caesar! opens today at the Regal Parkway Plaza 12, the AMC Century Federal Way, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!

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