D/W: Ethan and Joel Coen. DP: Roger Deakins. Starring: George Clooney/Josh Brolin/Channing Tatum/Scarlett Johansson/Alden Ehrenreich/Jonah Hill/Tilda Swinton/Ralph Fiennes/Frances McDormand/Alison Pill.
The newest effort from the Coen brothers abandons the dark bleakness of 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis for the bright world of studio era film-making. Even more recently the pair wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and continue to executive produce the FX series Fargo based on their original 1996 film. Here Hail, Caesar! is set in the bright Los Angeles sunshine with an undercurrent of communist meetings and production craziness, but lacks any true center. Much like the sprawling city itself.
The film, complete with a Michael Gambon voice-over, follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is a physical production head at the fictional studio in the 1950s as he deals with an on set crisis. The crisis is the abduction of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from his Roman epic set. His ransom is orchestrated by a communist group think that Clooney sits in with while the studio goes up in arms to find him. Within this story is a smaller one of Western success Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being placed in a costume drama directed by a serious Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence Laurence. Along with various smaller storylines the film is an interweaving series of events housed within the same studio family.
Hail, Ceasar! is enjoyable as a homage to studio era films and the nods to those stars are such fun. Will the average movie goer get them? Probably not, but hearing Hobie ask Carmen Miranda based character Carlotta Valdez about “balancing bananers on her head” makes it worth it. Even Scarlett Johansson’s character of DeaAnna Moran as a rip of famous water ballet star Esther Williams is great though she reuses her Jersey accent from Don Jon. Channing Tatum’s knock on Gene Kelly might make you forget the plot for a minute and as a musical fan I wouldn’t mind seeing Tatum in a dancing film. Tilda Swinton is oddly placed as twin sister gossip columnists, but overall the female characters are limited to their historical archetypes from that era. The standout is clearly Ehrenreich as Hobie, his accent is as thick as butter and his comic timing well played. Clooney is a snooze.
Yet the major problem is that the film feels gimmicky. The story is built so Mannix has an excuse to visit different sets on this lot and nod to the stars of old. Thus the plot runs thin and does not have the scope of the films it pays respect to nor is as memorable character wise as other Coen ventures. The film was shot by veteran Roger Deakins who last year was responsible for Sicario yet with an entirely different tone here is able to give pop to an era Trumbo made silly. However, overall Hail, Casear! lacks cohesion and a center so if you miss the references you might as well miss the film.