Joel and Ethan Coen don’t owe us anything.
The writing/directing brothers and masterminds behind some of cinema’s best films over the last few decades – from The Big Lebowski and Fargo to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading – are allowed a pass every once in a while to take a big swing for the fences on a prestige picture and miss.
Hail, Caesar! is a huge swing and an even bigger miss.
In the big-budget Hollywood movie about big-budget Hollywood making big-budget Hollywood movies, we find Josh Brolin star as Eddie Mannix, a Michael Clayton-esque fixer who keeps the scandals of his top actors out of the press in a vague 1950s Los Angeles.
Since the film is ostensibly centered around Mannix, viewers are propelled alongside Brolin as he ping-pongs from one studio lot to the next, fixing issues with major stars and directors to try and keep a theatrical adaptation of a smash Broadway play, a cowboy western, an aquatic musical, and an Roman epic on par with Spartacus on track.
If that’s not enough, his biggest film’s biggest lead – George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, star of film within a film Hail, Caesar! – has been kidnapped by an unknown group of rogue who may or may not be Communists.
Clocking in at well under two hours, Caesar! attempts to cram far too much into far too little time, leaving major stars like Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill with nothing more than extended cameos as a Esther Williams-type actress trying to hide her illegitimate pregnancy and a studio stooge, respectively.
This doesn’t even begin to question the decision to limit the screen time of Ralph Fiennes – perhaps Caesar’s best actor – who perfectly fits the comedic bill of what the Coens were trying to achieve with the film, their take on Wes Anderson’s fantastic The Grand Budapest Hotel.
For what actually appears on screen, Clooney does the best work of the film as an over-the-top, neurotic and complicated version of a Kirk Douglas-type actor kidnapped by an organization known simply as “The Future.” Audiences are largely left waiting for Clooney to reappear on screen to advance the real major storyline of the film while the Coens have Mannix meander throughout Hollywood and question whether or not he enjoys his job.
Channing Tatum offers an uneven performance as singing-dancing-acting triple threat Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly knockoff starring in a picture about sailors about to go off to war. The musical number audiences see filmed midway through Caesar! is the single best scene in an otherwise muddled script and features Tatum at his finest since the original Magic Mike.
If there’s a true winner in Hail, Caesar! – since it certainly isn’t audiences – it has to be Alden Ehrenreich, a relatively unknown actor with minor screen credits before landing the part of cowboy actor Hobie Doyle, the singin’, lasso tossin’, gee shucks-iest kind of actor around. His welcome fresh face among the talented cast of veteran actors is refreshing and Ehrenreich performs with gusto enough to call it a breakout performance.
Visually, Caesar! works in the respect that everything feels vintage Hollywood, from the costuming to the sets and performances within each film. The 50’s vibe is definitely there, but the Coens don’t really seem to have a firm grasp on where they want to go with this movie, dragging viewers all over the place in order to come to a middling conclusion at the end.
While there’s all the pieces for a fantastic film, nothing really seems to come together in Hail, Caesar! – an early favorite for the year’s most disappointing movie. From top to bottom, the entire production feels out of sync and in need of major structural repair to a confusing, all over the map script that holds Caesar! back from being something better.
It’s massively frustrating to see some of Hollywood’s best talent wasted like this, but the Coens have earned a well-deserved pass like Hail, Caesar!