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Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

A Dual Review in which Adam and Harry take turns picking apart the latest Coen Brothers release.

Adam’s Review: The “Golden Age of Hollywood” film piece is one of those staples of moviemaking that comes up every few years and reminds us how zany and awesome and corrupt it all used to be.  Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ latest production as they take a cockeyed look at Hollywood in its heyday, as films like The Artist and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit? have done before it.

The mostly fictional film revolves around the exploits of Eddie Mannix (a real person, though that’s pretty much where the film departs from reality), a “fixer” for a fictional-yet-familiar movie studio.  Mannix (convincingly played by Josh Brolin) is responsible for keeping movie productions going by solving the little crises and foibles that risk derailing the films and the studio’s reputation. Among them, Brolin juggles locating star actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped by communists in the middle of production; salvaging the reputation of a water ballet actress (Scarlett Johannson) who becomes pregnant out of wedlock; fending off twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton); and getting an unrefined cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) to upgrade to higher-class films. All the while, Mannix is debating whether he should even keep doing this, as he struggles with whether to take a cushy job offer from the up-and-coming airplane industry.

As a period piece, film buffs who love the early era of cinema will enjoy this movie. Hail, Caesar! is a movie fan’s delight with the overall setting of the movie being a delightful replica of late 1940s Los Angeles and its film studios. The story goes to great lengths to create transparent expy versions that came out of this era, with the eponymous “Hail Caesar” being an obvious stand-in for Ben Hur, along with similar replications of era-appropriate films like Footlight Parade and On the Town. The all-star cast of the film convincingly transform themselves into their counterparts of yesteryear (in some case imitating real people–Johannson’s character is a callback to 1940s starlet Esther Williams) and really give this movie personality. It’s all a bit silly, but it’s good fun.

Likewise, the film is replete with classic Coen Brothers humor with dialogue that borders on the absurd, where the characters behave just past the border of sanity. A quartet of religious leaders who are brought in as moral advisors to the film argue not just over whether God and Jesus are even portrayed accurately, but also whether it’s realistic for someone to jump between moving chariots. Clooney’s character raises the ethics of whether he’s allowed to share in his own ransom. Legal questions are raised as to whether an actress can adopt her own child for the sake of covering up a scandal. These madcap situations definitely keep the story moving.

The downside of Hail, Caesar! is that it’s a very busy movie. At its heart, the film is about Mannix’s day-in-the-life struggles with keep a film studio from falling apart. The centrality of this plot isn’t always clear, as the story is often interrupted by tangential stories that feed into Mannix’s story, but not always right away. Some of these side plots–particularly Alden Ehrenreich’s role as the cowboy actor–weave in and out of the story and their overall relevance to Mannix isn’t obvious at times. Even Whitlock’s kidnapping at first seems to be the film’s central conflict, but is ultimately revealed to be one of many stories and really never gets resolved in any kind of meaningful climax.

In other words, the movie is classic Coen brothers, but it’s also got a lot of fat that either needed to be trimmed or tightened up. It’s mostly fun in the same vein as The Big Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy, but with much more bloat than those prior films. Go if you’re a diehard Coen fan or someone who loves classic cinema, but don’t expect the movie to be the directors’ best effort.

Rating: Three and a half out of five Clooneys.

Harry’s Review:  While not totally disagreeing with Adam’s take on the movie, Hail Caesar in my mind could have been a really good capers movie with the tools the Coen Brothers were given. Adam has done a really good job describing the film thus I will stick more to what worked and didn’t work for me.

On the outset when I saw the trailers, I thought this would be a movie reminiscent of some of the Mel Brooks movies we got from the mid-70’s such as Young Frankenstein or Silent Movie but with a Coen Brothers touch. But because there were so many stories going on, what we were given was less heist comedy and more of a ‘day in the life of’ story. As stated, this movie is more about what happens in Eddie Mannix’s work day that requires him to deal with kidnapping of his main star, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, keeping it quiet in the press, and other subplots that are brewing.   I did enjoy Josh Brolin’s take on Mannix as he goes through the movie putting out one fire after another and just manages to not lose his mind. Because of this I felt like Brolin’s character was the one I was most vested in because you could see him sometimes tip-toeing the moral line in some of his decision making.

The issue I had with this movie was the lack of making what I assumed was the main story (Whitlock’s kidnapping) interesting or having any real impact especially at the end. In between the kidnapping, Mannix is tasked with keeping DeeAnna Moran’s ( played by Scarlett Johansson) image intact and getting Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle upgraded to become a dramatic actor. While these may have made for great subplots, they felt like they went nowhere, especially Moran’s plotline. I was really more interested in seeing how Mannix was going to handle Whitlock’s kidnapping, but more to the point how Whitlock was going to handle being kidnapped.   Eventually when Whitlock realizes what’s going on and decides to throw his lot in with the kidnappers this would have made for a more focused story and interesting twist. Added to that, is Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney who plays a pivotal role in Whitlock’s kidnapping but the character is so under-developed that when you realize what role he plays you almost have no reason to care why he is even there in the first place.

I felt like the Coen Brothers had so many toys in the toy box that they were allowed to play with but instead of focusing on the main plot plus one or two other subplots that could intersect, viewers almost have to keep a scorecard of what’s going on as well as the cameos.

Out of them all, the best one was Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz, a director who is tasked with molding Hobie Doyle by teaching him to talk ‘proper English’. Even Jonah Hill, who I am not really fond of, in his one scene as a straight-laced yet really shady Hollywood lawyer gave me a chuckle. There were so many others that appeared like Christopher Lambert, Tilda Swinton, Dolph Lundgren and Robert Picardo (yes…The Doctor from Star Trek) that if you blinked you would have missed them.

The upside is that as Adam stated, the movie is gorgeous.   The colors, even when muted gave a good pop to emulate most of the movies produced in the 50’s.   You get that feeling most during Scarlett Johansson’s swim scene. I was also most impressed with Channing Tatum’s tap dance scene, which was reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s works.

As a whole, I am really torn with this movie. I felt that this film was filled more with stories that lead almost nowhere with a liberal sprinkling of cameos and less of a focus on the kidnapping of the big star. Some of the side stories do eventually lead back to the story arc but I felt that not enough of the breadcrumbs leading back were sufficient to really make viewers care. The dialogue is humorous at times and is trademark of what the Coen Brothers are known for but there were too many times that scenes ran a bit too long to justify their existences. Also, to piggyback Adam’s point, I felt like what really could have saved this movie was the final resolution of Whitlock’s kidnapping which fell really flat, and as I stated felt like just another day of work for Mannix.

My Rating is 2.5 kidnappings out of 5


Our combined average is:   3 out of 5 stars

About Adam Frey (372 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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