5 February 2016 | StevePulaski
Satire that lacks energy, conviction, characters, character development, a focus, and nearly everything that makes good satire
After the phenomenal and emotional roller-coaster of "Inside Llewyn Davis," a film that still hasn't found the audience it so desperately deserves, Joel and Ethan Coen followup arguably their best film with one that might be their most forgettable. "Hail, Caesar!" is a disappointment of epic proportions; an empty, unfocused satire on Hollywood business that has too many characters fighting for too little screen time, almost no energy despite attempting to work with a high-stakes plot, no strong character relationships despite the fact that everyone is trying to get a word in at all times during the course of the film, and finally, no central conflict that results in the characters ostensibly mustering up any kind of energy. If the characters themselves barely care about the situations they're in, why should we, the audience, who is now out of the high cost of a movie ticket?
The film revolves around a Hollywood mogul Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is hired to help fix the troubled production of a Hollywood epic known as "Hail, Caesar!." The film stars the famous Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who winds up being drugged on-set and kidnapped by a radical group of communists that call themselves "The Future." Mannix is tasked with giving the group $100,000 in exchange for his star actor.
The Coen brothers spend much of the film hopscotching from different characters and different sets in what feels like a setup for a mini-series rather than a one-hundred minute film. Such characters are Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a very meticulous director, Thora and Thessaly Tacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), rival, twin-sister gossip columnists, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a low-rent Western actor-turned-movie-star, who is one of Mannix's closest clients, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who becomes pregnant out of wedlock in the middle of her film, and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a Gene Kelly-type actor, also working under the order of Mannix, who winds up at the center of the film's outstanding dance sequence between a group of Coast Guard members about to embark on a nautical mission that will prevent them from seeing a dame for months.
"Hail, Caesar!" is a film of moments, meaning that, once the film is over, you'll remember certain scenes you enjoyed, certain actors' cameos (which most of the aforementioned are) you appreciated, and if you're lucky, lines you can quote verbatim. At the end of the day, the sporadic humor that those little moments provide is not enough to recommend a film. The Coen brothers don't seem to know what direction they want to take this film, and with such a concise runtime, they have no time to make good use of the actors they probably paid quite a bit to show up on set for one day. This gives the film the look and feel that most of these A-list stars are simply fighting over screen time, and that isn't funny, especially when you have true talent being only momentarily showcased so the film can dart off to the next decorated setpiece.
Then there's the issue of the film just not having much life to it outside of immaculate costume design and some strong cinematography (done by Roger Deakins, one of Hollywood's most masterful cinematographers working today). Because the actors aren't given characters to work with, no real energy or interest builds for them, and neither do character relationships. What we were supposed to gain from the scene involving Jonah Hill (who is on-screen for maybe a minute and a half) and Scarlet Johansson where Johansson's DeAnna asks Hill's Joseph if pressing down on the machine that stamps the papers hurts his forearm? Was this sort of flirtation so necessary that it needed to be included, or were the Coen's too busy giggling under their breath to notice?
"Hail, Caesar!" is overpopulated with scenes that don't work to further what little plot is here, and with such a high-stakes story about a lead actor being kidnapped by a band of communists, Clooney's Braid Whitlock doesn't seem too phased, Brolin's Mannix, who has never been a particularly strong actor to show real emotion or gusto in his personals, doesn't seem too concerned, so what is there left for us to care about?
Some comparison has been made between both "Hail, Caesar!" and Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and while the two have a similar approach to dry wit and deadpan humor, as well as similar actors like Fiennes and Swinton, Anderson's picture was a perfect example of copious energy and exhilarating, rapid-fire comic exchanges. "Hail, Caesar!" is the exact opposite; a frequently dull and almost entirely uninteresting film, predicated upon the strength of a few great scenes and some decent, albeit far, far too short, performances in a thoroughly muddled picture.