Hail, Caesar! is a Coen Brothers’ picture, through and through, continuing their trend of ridiculing and embracing the absurdity of life, the world, and the people in it doing the things they do. This time it’s the big Hollywood system, set in 1950, following studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he wanders from set to set looking for missing movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock has been kidnapped, and is being held for ransom by The Future, one of many clever and layered jokes throughout the film.
And it certainly is clever – Hail, Caesar! often shows the “comedic Coens” at the height of their powers. They revel in the absurdity at work in this studio system, often adding just enough silliness to tip these various pictures (the titular “Hail, Caesar!” being one) into utter ridiculousness. They revel in the hats that Tilda Swinton’s journalist wears, Clooney’s buffoonery. Actually, they revel in the buffoonery of just about every character in the picture, all molded from some real life movie figures and blown up for, I’d argue, successful comedic effect. All of this nonsense is laced up with the classic Coen screwball wit – jokes and gags are rarely just jokes and gags.
Indeed, Hail, Caesar! has plenty of richness, in the colorful work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, and in the way somber Christian undertones keep the film somewhat grounded, ultimately rendering most of Caesar’s buffoonery into a love letter about faith in movies – amidst all of this debauchery, and the ridiculous machinations, schemes, and industries that man cooks up, if we have but faith movie magic can still be a wonderful thing. Certainly there’s more to it than that – this is a Coen Brothers movie – but nevertheless, Hail, Caesar!‘s is ultimately quite charming. Speaking of movie magic, what is more spectacular than Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid suit, or Channing Tatum doing an elaborate tap dance number? Not much, but all of the Coens’ reveling in spoofing these various types pictures is Hail, Caesar!‘s biggest flaw.
In terms of narrative, the film does not amount to much. Scenes (almost more like skits, really) are strung together by these thin thematic threads. Character development, as well as any true dedication to storytelling are thrown out the window in favor of entertaining, gorgeous, yet ultimately hollow set pieces. Big name actors like Johansson, Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and especially Jonah Hill, are reduced to what are essentially glorified cameos. Sure, their mere presence is enough to get a mirthful chuckle, but that’s all they seem to be here for (aside from the ironic threads tying Johansson’s character to the virgin Mary). As entertaining as they are – and they really are, seemingly daring us to pick a favorite – these assembled skits thrown together do not a cohesive whole make. Then again, maybe that’s the point, but when Hail, Caesar! ended it felt as if its third act was was left in Francis McDormand’s editing room – it sorely needed another 30 minutes, and as much fun as the film is, made the lack of that half-hour sting all the more.