Ahh, the fresh smell of a new movie year is in the air–especially now that studios have finally started to realize that the weird ceasefire in January and February doesn’t really make any sense for anyone. I mean, why waste two months of potential box office real estate, just so everyone can release bad movies while no one is paying attention? Maybe one month is needed to give awards movies and December releases a real run, but more than that just seems excessive. So it’s cool that this year studios have gotten started early with heavy hitter releases. One of these releases is today’s selection for The Anticipated: The Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!. While I have never disliked anything the Coens have made, I have also never really been that big of a fan. Exactly why is hard to say. But Hail, Caesar! burst onto the scene with a dynamite trailer and a star-studded cast. Is this the Coen flick I finally fall for? Let’s find out.
Light Spoilers Ahead
Hail, Caesar (February 5th, 2016)
How was it?
Good… but not really a movie. Or at least not a story. Sure, there is a light bit of narrative involving Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix’s job concerns, but for the most part this film is simply a love letter to 1950s Hollywood. It’s a conceptual structure that allows the film moments of true brilliance, but as a story it never quite comes together. The movie’s characters never quite mesh with one another, and the almost surreal nature of the story at times hinders Hail, Caeser! from making that transition from good to great movie. Brolin anchors the movie as best he can, but there is only so much he can do considering how disjointed the film is. The movie also suffers a little bit of the same thing as Burn After Reading, which is that there is such a star overload that things get a bit distracting, especially when so many well-known performers are playing nothing roles just for an excuse to work with the Coens. This is especially true for Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. The Coens are generally known for having strong female roles in their films, but that simply isn’t there in this film. Johansson’s role would be the closest, but there just isn’t anything for her to do. Now, considering this movie is in a lot of ways just a clever stealth retelling of the story of Christ, there isn’t really a role for her there to fill, but it did still feel off that she doesn’t even get a good mini-subplot to work, with like many of her other co-stars did.
That’s what permeates throughout the film most: a sense of offness. This is a deeply layered film with a lot to unpack, but it mostly feels like the film is just going in circles, as the Coens do their best to bring a marginal story to its peak potential. Sometimes this leads to great things, like everything involving Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney, who nails every part he plays in the movie. He is part of an amazing dance sequence when he first appears, and then later one of the funniest parts of the movie, as he takes a boat toward his destiny. Admittedly, there isn’t much for Tatum to work with, either, but together with the Coens he crafts quite the character, bringing far more depth to the role than it should otherwise have had. Tatum’s character is also showcased by the real star of this film: the cinematography.
Once again, Roger Deakins collaborates with the Coens, and it is magic. This is a film that could very easily have had vanilla cinematography, but instead Deakins brings the screen to life. The framing in this film is exquisite, and the energy brought about by Deakins’s effortless work permeates throughout the film. The cinematography helps demonstrate the difference between the two main through-lines of the film: a day in the life of a 1950s studio head and a strange kidnapping. The former is concerned with showing off the work happening on the studio lot and capturing the filmmaking magic, while the latter plot is more about the oddness of the situation. The dichotomy really helps make the movie pop, and if nothing else, keeps the film visually intriguing, even as everything else is straining to fit together properly.
Deakins isn’t the only high profile creative collaborating with the Coens once again; George Clooney gets to get his fool on with the Coens for the third in their “Idiot trilogy” as Baird Whitlock, and Tilda Swinton (previously in Burn After Reading) plays twin gossip columnists. But newcomers also make an impression, including Alden Ehrenreich’s fun and earnest turn as Hobie Doyle. Ralph Fiennes’s Laurence Laurentz is masterful in a scene in which he tries his best to get a workable performance out of the woefully miscast Doyle, a vignette that gives a fantastic look at how a director works with many performers. Plus the film has a great score and soundtrack that exists throughout the film in an immensely satisfying way. Individually most of these pieces are quite good, and although none are able to fully work together, they still make this film entertaining as hell. The craft is top notch, and much like The Revenant (for different reasons), Hail, Caeser! deserves much praise for that, especially because, unlike The Revenant, the techniques here are used to have fun instead of to wallow in angsty sadness. Still, the craft here far outstrips the content, and the difference is noticeable and quite distracting.
Isn’t this based on…?
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Meh, probably not. There is nothing really wrong with this movie, but the main reason it made my list is I was really hoping that for once I could love a Coen brothers movie as much as other people do. Other than A Serious Man and O’ Brother Where Art Thou, I have never been as enamored with the Coens as most (if nothing else, I don’t think they have made consistent masterpieces, a claim Kyu has made in the past). They have just never really clicked with me as a viewer, and I constantly find myself more respecting their work than actually liking it. Part of this is material. The Coens constantly feel like they are picking b-level stories, and then bringing their a-level directing skills to make it work. This is especially true with True Grit, which is a nice movie but seriously overrated. I constantly find myself wondering what would happen if the Coens would be willing to bring their unique perspective and directing style to someone else’s work without feeling the need to re-write it themselves, even if I know that will never happen. (Nor should it, because why the hell should they mess with what has been such an amazing run to most people?) Of course, the material isn’t the only issue, as at some level there is just always something off for me about their films. I should have loved No Country For Old Men, but instead found it to be good but not great. Inside Llewyn Davis should have been my jam, but despite the really nice soundtrack, the film as a whole just doesn’t work as well as I would have thought, because the Coens never quite nail the slice of life aspects. This sort of thing has left me mostly numb to when a new Coen film comes out, because I have no real history to suggest that I should be that excited. Sure, their movies will always be good, but I watch a lot of good movies. Good doesn’t get you excited.
The trailer for this film changed everything for me, as I suddenly felt a strong desire to see if the Coens could finally get through to me, just like Wes Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu finally did in 2014 with Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman (respectively). Instead I was greeted with the same feeling I get after pretty much every Coen brothers movie: good, but not great. This film had more great moments than I was used to, but that’s just not enough. Now, to be fair, it is not like this film was really supposed to be a mega prestige picture, and it is very entertaining for what it is. But it does feel like the Coens are just fucking around during a lot of this movie, kind of like they did with Burn After Reading. All Coen movies have a depth to them that takes a while to parse, but that doesn’t help if I don’t feel I have enough reason to put in the effort. When a movie’s core doesn’t really work, it doesn’t matter how deep that core might be.
Ultimately, all this probably means is that the Coens are not for me. It happens. I think they’ll survive without me unabashedly loving their movies. I’ll keep trying to watch their films, and hopefully I’ll find another A Serious Man that resonates with me. It’s not like they make bad movies, and watching good movies with moments of greatness isn’t the worst thing. It’s always nice to know you won’t hate a film when it’s over, and if nothing else, Hail, Caesar! showed that the Coens will continue be some of the more interesting filmmakers alive.
Would I recommend it to others?
Certainly for Coen fans, because it definitely feels their kind of movie, and most people who like one Coen brothers movie generally like most of the rest. Despite my problems, it’s still a fun movie, and a has solid consensus amongst critics and audiences, with an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid (though not spectacular) 72 on Metacritic. If you love stories about 1950s Hollywood, this film will also be a lot of fun. Still, there is nothing about this film that screams must watch, so if you are simply intrigued by the premise absent of the whole Coen brothers aesthetic, then watch it when you have time, but don’t bother feeling any urgency.
How would I rate it?
This is another fun rating to parse. The film was good, but not what I had hoped it would be. Still, it is trending toward being another solid financial success for the Coens, especially considering its modest budget, which it has already made back. This means I can’t be too harsh with our handy-dandy made up Anticipation Meter, and so Hail, Casar! receives 5 lasso tricks out of 10, because this film left me once again wanting more and questioning everyone’s mad love for the Coen brothers.
For an actual rating: a middling story that never really comes together holds this film back, but doesn’t overshadow the fact that there is some truly great stuff in this movie. The cinematography is stunning and the music in the film works to help make Hail, Caeser! a treat for the senses. Plus the film is fun, and there is nothing wrong with fun, so that probably makes it slightly better than a 3 star movie, so I rate it 3.25 stars out of 4. This film is worth a watch, and it shines brightly in many key moments, so even if the writing is off, the film is still good.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. Check back for the next edition, where I will be looking at Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. It’s amazing that this film even actually got released, so we’ll see if after a very troubled production the film was able to get its act together for some entertaining fun. (It only has to be as entertaining as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so not a high bar to clear.) Until then, just remember, the extras are always out to get you, and never trust a sailor that can dance.