The latest Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! was advertised as a story of a Hollywood fixer in the 1950s working to keep movie stars in line. Posters immediately reveal its plump casting repertoire with sturdy A-list actors, cutting from the same cloth as the early 2000s Ocean’s trilogy. As expected, this made for nice hype fodder. Keyword: fodder.
The short of it does neatly follow the above one-liner: yes, there is a nonfictional Hollywood fixer and his name is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and his job is to put out fires, big and small, that arise in the grand Capitol Studios’ projects. Small fires include Scarlett Johansson husky-voiced as ever as DeAnna Morgan – knocked up and facing a PR disaster, Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle – an adorably clueless standup cowboy in the midst of image rebranding, and Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz seeking a leading man for his newest picture. As for the big fire, we see George Clooney as Baird Whitlock poisoned on the set of Capitol’s eponymous big budget Biblical epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and kidnapped by a communist group named ‘The Future.’ Eddie has 24 hours to get $100,000 in ransom money to bring Baird back before gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) catch wind of the dilemma.
Whew! Hollywood feels kinda silly, don’t it? This is precisely what the Coen brothers aim to highlight, immersing cinema history with spoof in the debonair glamour that was Tinsel Town in the ‘50s. And so unfolds a series of vignettes heavy with eye-candy celebrities spitting one-liners and even dance numbers (paging Channing Tatum in a sailor outfit and tap shoes) to add chuckles to the commentary. Sounds fantastic. But it’s too bad that the commentary thing was pushed with far too much relish.
In Hail, Caesar!, we are taken from farcical scene after farcical scene that are meant to buoy us with the kind of snark that’s reminiscent of true Coen style. The film’s imagery bounces off each other to subvert the seriousness while keeping it afloat at the same time. We’ll take, for example, the opening scene in which we see a statue of a bleeding Jesus on the cross. While this kind of imagery is the Coens’ way of removing any sub-textual ambiguity, it’s most definitely snark. At one point, the film is heavy on admittedly hilarious religious dialogue, as Eddie talks with three priests and a rabbi on whether the script of ‘Hail, Caesar!’ offends “reasonable viewers.” Whether the brothers are sincere or playing a big old joke, the whole thing is like a subversive bit of performance art that felt a little too pretentious, a little too fartsy, a little too forced. It’s like the Coen brothers made a seemingly obvious attempt to flash their own creative relevance in Hail, Caesar!; we may as well have called it Hail, Coens! instead.
Cinema references were acknowledged while chuckles were bona fide here and strained there. Regardless, the ultimate message in Hail, Caesar! is pretty clear: Hollywood is a big ol’ dream machine. And so, honestly, Hail, Ceasar! is.
Written by Dara Kim