Movie Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is one of those movies you’ll love … eventually
Didn’t like “Hail, Caesar?” I have some bad news for you, because you actually did.
Now, I’m not saying that you’re lying to yourself. I’m sure when you shouted, “That was the worst movie I ever saw,” shortly before you gave a very theatrical thumbs down as you made a loud, prolonged fart noise during the closing credits, you were being very sincere. But I also get the feeling that you did the same thing during your first viewings of “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski” and just about every movie the Coen brothers ever made. The Coen brothers make films you either like right away or will eventually like five years from now – and never shut up about (I’m looking at you, “Lebowski” fans). There really is no middle ground. So even though you sit with smug satisfaction, secure in the knowledge that you hated “Hail, Caesar,” know that one day you’ll accidentally catch a glimpse of it on IFC or through the window of a neighbor who has Netflix and you’ll fall to your knees. As tears well up in your eyes you’ll say, “Mike Sullivan was right. I do like this movie. I should have never broken up with him.” But it will be too late. I’ll be too rich and handsome by then to hear you.
To be fair, “Hail, Caesar” is probably the Coen’s most self-indulgent film. It’s jangly, unfocused and fetishizes the silver age of filmmaking in that same film-nerdy way that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fetishized ’70s B-Movies in “Grindhouse.” But “Hail, Caesar” is also the Coen’s funniest movie to date. For example, a set-piece revolving around a stuffy director’s (Ralph Fiennes) growing frustrations with an actor’s inability to say “Would that it were so simple” seems ready-made for a prime spot in a future Coen Brothers retrospective. For some, “Hail, Caesar” will require a certain degree of patience but that patience won’t go unrewarded.
“Hail, Caesar” takes place a little over the span of 24 hours as Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) – a studio fixer for the fictional Capital Pictures – mulls over a job offer from Lockheed Martin as he keeps Capital’s stable of dimwitted contract players barely out of trouble. Within this very loose framework, “Hail Caesar” frequently digresses from this plot thread to focus on the somewhat aimless exploits of the stars of Capital Studios. Alden Ehrenreich plays an earnest Gene Autry analogue who struggles with an ill-considered image makeover when he’s cast in a mannered George Cukor-like drama entitled “Merrily We Dance.”
Scarlett Johansson is an annoyed, foul-mouthed Esther Williams type who hates the fact she has to swim around on set in a “fish ass” (her term for the mermaid suit she wears). George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, Capital Studios’ foppish golden goose who is kidnapped during the shooting of “Hail, Caesar” – the titular movie within the movie which plays like an overwrought version of Victor Saville’s already pretty overwrought “The Silver Chalice.” Sometimes these vignettes converge with Brolin’s, sometimes they don’t. Either way, like most late period output from the Coens, it all wraps up on a somewhat anticlimactic note. Almost if the film suddenly realized its hour and 46 minutes was up, frantically grabbed its coat and hat and hurried off without saying goodbye.
It’s not surprising to realize that a lot of the praise directed at “Hail Caesar” is almost exclusively coming from film critics, simply because it’s the kind of movie that would only appeal to, if not film critics, then the nerdiest of film nerds. Full appreciation of “Hail Caesar” is somewhat dependent on your knowledge of the Hollywood ‘star system’ of the ’40s, the paranoid, ‘red-baiting’ of the ’50s, Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” and forgotten studio hacks like Norman Taurog. But even if you didn’t get “Hail, Caesar’s” backhanded tributes to singing cowboy westerns and “Neptune’s Daughter” the film is still overstuffed with the kind of smart-stupid comedy found in the sillier Coen brothers movies. Tilda Swinton plays rival gossip columnists, Ehrenreich performs rope tricks for no particular reason while he waits for his studio arranged date to arrive, a meeting between religious leaders about the historical accuracy found in “Hail, Caesar,” devolves into a petty argument over the film’s continuity errors.
Basically, it’s the kind of comedy that people either ‘get’ or don’t. And if you don’t, give “Hail, Caesar” a chance anyway. Don’t you want to watch Channing Tatum tap dance his way through the most comically homoerotic take on Gene Kelly’s “Anchor’s Away?”
Probably not. But you will five years from now.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton
Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Weekender Rating: WWWW
Length: 106 min.