Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
I am a big fan of the Coen brothers. I’m also both a dude and kind of lazy, so maybe that isn’t too surprising, but I think that somewhere between the stoned giggles of The Big Lebowski, the dark wit of Fargo, and the sombre violence of No Country For Old Men, the brothers have tapped into a vein of cinema-awesome that everyone can enjoy.
So when I saw the trailer for Hail, Caesar! a few months back I was duly excited. It promised me an incredible ensemble cast, embroiled in a bizarre plot to keep hostage the star of a 1950s Hollywood production. It looked fast-paced, beautifully shot, and as a Hollywood film about Hollywood I figured maybe there would be some clever meta commentary too.
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After watching the full film I realised these impressions weren’t wrong, but it was so disappointing.
The story delves into the scandalous lives and dramas of Hollywood actors, beginning with Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)—the head of production at Capital Pictures and a PR figure who tries desperately to keep the lives of the actors out of the press. However, his job is not an easy one. After discovering unmarried synchronized swimming actress Dee-Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has fallen pregnant and big shot actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been drugged and abducted on set, Mannix’s dilemmas become increasingly complicated.
Meanwhile, singing Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is cast in a period drama that is quite out of his comfort zone in an attempt to broaden his appeal. After discovering that he is indeed hopelessly incompetent, Doyle tries to break free from the role but finds he is locked in by a non-negotiable contract.
Hail, Caesar! has at least five great films going on inside it and you don’t get to see any of them. Take Frances McDormand’s (a film editor for Capital Pictures) role for example, I don’t want to spoil anything, but she’s great. Her character is idiosyncratic and fascinating to watch, and her scene had everyone in the showing I was at in stitches. But that’s all she has, one scene. She’s there, she has her shtick and then she’s never heard from again. What the Coen brothers have against Frances McDormand I don’t know, because clearly there was a whole story there that I never got to understand. All the subplots in the film feel this way. Underdeveloped, inconclusive, and unfair on the actors who so masterfully bring them to life.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is funny. But it is incredibly hard to make a film that goes nowhere feel satisfying. Maybe that could be forgiven if there was some perceptive or topical commentary on the film industry going on below the surface, but honestly, the brothers haven’t given us that either. Maybe the point they were trying to make with characters like McDormand’s is that films are made by hundreds of individuals, many of whom go unrecognised in the finished product? Maybe they were just trying to show us how complicated movie-making is without boring us with the technical bits? Maybe they just wanted to teach us a little bit about the history of Hollywood à la Trumbo? But I can’t say if any of those are the point because none of those are really pursued in the film.
The road to nowhere is a fun one, but Hail Caesar! is too loose and unfocused. For those of us waiting for the next Coen brother’s masterpiece, well, we’ll just have to abide a little longer.