DIR/WRI: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • PRO: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Eric Fellner • DOP: Roger Deakins • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Jess Gonchor • MUS: Carter Burwell • CAST: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton
To utilise a recurring phrase from Hail Caesar the Coens Brothers always make prestige pictures. Though increasingly their individual filmic output seems to be instantly and strictly branded by critics as either serious fare or lighter fluff. Based on their own terse thoughts in interviews, it’s hardly a distinction the brothers make themselves. And yet here we are again, ostensibly and somehow undeniably at the lighter end of the sliding scale of seriousness.
Cards on table, I am avid fan battling to hold onto impartiality and discernment. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that the serious pictures are being a tad over-praised these days and the lighter pictures unnecessarily lambasted. Early word and trailers for Hail Caesar! were highly promising. The studio setting. The welcome presence of Josh Brolin in a lead role. Clooney looking to poke fun at acting hubris. What’s not to love? And since when have the Coens not wrangled tension, humour and even emotion out of a kidnap plot?
The elements are all present and correct. And yet something at the heart of the film fails to fire, leaving the entertainment soufflé stubbornly refusing to rise. Certainly, there are moments of quality and levity that hit the mark but they are scattered throughout the film like an bony archipelago where a spine should be. Hail Caesar! is brightly shot and endearingly performed by a terrific ensemble cast but crucially and fatally, it’s never exactly fun or funny.
It’s a danger for any reviewer to start reviewing the film Hail Caesar! with what could or should have been but I contend that the promotional materials promised one film while delivering another. Not an uncommon occurrence but insightful since the most effective trailers for this film pitched it as a thriller. And surely that was the connective tissue to ease an audience through this maze of murky plot and uneven tone. The central character Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a Hollywood studio fixer and initially seems to be occupying a recognisably hard-boiled world. Everyone else is literally acting in a different movie – which may be a very meta-joke as Eddie flitters from film set to film set trying to quell problems – but it’s still an unsolved flaw at the heart of Hail Caesar! Summed up by the kidnapping of one of the studio’s biggest stars Baird Whitlock (Clooney) being drained of any tension by the audience being privy to both sides of the abduction from the get-go.
Again, the Coens are proved masters of making even this scenario sing but here it’s off-key. Thrillers need tension and so occasionally do comedies. Moments of potential interest like studio extras being braced for information are referenced in passing but not depicted – who doesn’t want to see that scene? And yet the Coens are clearly more enthralled with evoking this era on soundstages onto which Mannix walks to impotently watch entire musical numbers of impressive scale but scant narrative interest. In The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s drug fevered dreams still advanced the story and deepened character. As impressive as Channing Tatum’s dance sequence is, beyond the nimble hoofing, it has nothing going on under the hood.
Even by Saturday night multiplex standards, the whole thing starts to feel frightfully slight. Amiable performances alone aren’t enough. Ralph Fiennes returns to mining his recently discovered comedy chops and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich has fun as a drawling cowpoke pushed into a period drama but it’s all a little dramatically inert. Even the solace of great dialogue is mainly absent but of course, there is the occasional golden line.
Overall, one has to be careful and acknowledge historical precedent. The Coens’ body of work contains several films that have grown in affection and stature as the years pass. Personally, Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty have risen off the floor and proved to have an afterlife. I fervently hope Hail Caesar! grows in prestige as the years go by. Hell, that would be swell.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Hail Caesar! is released 4th March 2016