HAIL, CAESAR! – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Josh Brolin (True Grit), George Clooney (Ocean’s Eleven), Alden Ehrenreich (Blue Jasmine), Tilda Swinton (Constantine), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Writers/Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)

Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes

Release Date: 5 February (US), 4 March (UK)

The Coen Brothers have shown they can handle a multitude of genres, often balancing several at the same time. Their films can be simultaneously gruesome and humorous, injecting their trademark wit and deadpan timing into even the most serious of situations. With its setting of classic 1950s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! gives them the opportunity to play with genre more than ever, but by giving them so many toys to play with they never get the chance to pick a favourite.

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The behind the scenes world of cinema in this era is fascinating and has served as the backdrop of many great films from LA Confidential to Hollywoodland, and with this movie it’s clear the Coens are lovers of the period too. The film certainly captures the madcap nature of this industry back then, touching on many of the topics of the day like sex scandals and the influence of communism, but it also embodies its setting in its presentation and tone. It certainly feels like a movie that could have been made in the period itself, and it takes every opportunity to explore every type of film made in the era. Whether it’s gargantuan historical epics, cheesy westerns or fabulous musicals, there is a bit of everything to be found in Hail, Caesar! Where the film falters, however, is in meshing all of these ideas together into a cohesive whole. The story flits between different storylines with often only the thinnest of links and little to no development (some plots are even resolved off-screen!), concepts and questions are brought up only to be offhandedly answered or quickly forgotten, and characters disappear for long stretches or sometimes never even return. The Coen Brothers have never been ones to be mindful of traditional structure or narrative, which has worked to great effect for them in films like The Big Lebowski, but here it not only feels needed but also thematically appropriate. If this is meant to be a satirical look at 1950s Hollywood through the lens of a 1950s Hollywood film, why not give it a traditional overarching plot? It would make it even more period authentic and further accentuate many of the film’s themes.

As always, The Coen Brothers have assembled a fantastic all-star cast to populate their film, but like the story most of them get lost in the shuffle. Josh Brolin is the main lead as real-life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, and though he does a perfectly fine job with the material he isn’t given much room to stretch. He’s constantly concerned about his hectic job and how it’s affecting his family, but we don’t get any insight into his personal life beyond one brief scene, and the decision he makes about his career at the end is completely without conflict. The real scene-stealers of the film are George Clooney as the clueless and easily persuaded Baird Whitlock, and Alden Ehrenreich as the befuddled western star Hobie Doyle. Clooney is excellent at playing the self-absorbed actor who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, using his pretty boy charm to be humorous rather than enchanting. Ehrenreich shines in every scene he gets, his thick Southern drawl combined with his sweet but simpleton dialogue creating a fantastically amusing character; his scene with Ralph Fiennes as his fed-up director is easily the film’s comedy highlight. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, feel like mere flashes in the pan with many barely even getting one scene. There’s certainly some interesting characters amongst the bunch, like Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque musical star or Tilda Swinton in a dual role as competing journalists, but they only have the most tangential relation to the main plot. I could go on listing the recognisable names in this movie (Christopher Lambert, Alison Pill, David Krumholtz and Frances McDormand to name a few), but so many of them are in the film so little you could miss them in a brief bathroom break and lose nothing. Heck, Jonah Hill is heavily featured in all the marketing, and yet he has only one brief scene with about four lines of dialogue! I know that’s hardly the movie’s fault, but the expansive cast just adds to the clutter of content that is this movie.

What I cannot fault Hail, Caesar! for, however, is its presentation. As mentioned beforehand, the movie emulates the look and feel of 1950s Hollywood cinema whether focusing on the making of a picture or not. Roger Deakins’ cinematography masterfully captures that magical look seen in so many films of the era in both camerawork and lighting, all filmed in classic 35mm. The sets and costumes are all period perfect, gushing with lavish design and gloriously saturated colours, and the choreography on the film’s two dance sequences feels ripped right out of a masterpiece of the time. Carter Burwell’s score feels pitch perfect for the film’s style and tone, and what little visual effects work there may be blends seamlessly into the movie’s otherwise beautifully archaic appearance.

As much praise as they deservedly get, The Coen Brothers don’t always hit it out of the park and Hail, Caesar! probably won’t become a classic like many of their other films; I’m sure it’ll build a loyal fanbase, but I doubt it’s going to become anyone’s favourite. It certainly has a lot of interesting ideas, but it has far too many for its own good, resulting in an periodically intriguing but overall muddled experience. It’s certainly worth a watch for anyone with a passion for its subject matter, and Alden Ehrenreich’s performance is more than worth your time (seriously, he’s one of the best and most underutilised actors of his generation), but it’s nothing you need to rush out and see. Hopefully whatever Joel and Ethan have cooked up for us next will be a little more satisfying.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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