HAIL, CAESAR! Is Too Much Dressing, Not Enough Croutons

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HAIL CAESAR opens February 5, 2016.

When you think of Caesar, you think of three things: Rome, betrayal, and salad. The Coen Brothers, creators of such classic comedy films as RAISING ARIZONA, FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI and O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and more dramatic features such as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT are back with HAIL, CAESAR!, a tale of McCarthy-era Hollywood. I typically enjoy movies that explore that era, but the Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t break any new ground here. HAIL, CAESAR! had the grandeur of Rome, it was as funny and exciting as your average Caesar salad, and it betrayed my high expectations.    

It’s terribly unfair of me, I know. The cast is certainly tasty enough. Studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, spends most of the movie running around 1950s Los Angeles and a huge studio lot, chasing down actors and extras to keep the studios out of the gossip columns, especially those penned by the journalist sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by the ever impeccable Tilda Swinton. Mannix is tasked with keeping Baird Whitlock, the hunky leading man played by George Clooney and the star of the studio’s biggest blockbuster, “Hail Caesar,” sober and on set, get Alden Ehrenreich’s eager young cowpoke Hobie Doyle to expand his oeuvre, and keep Scarlett Johannson, as the wholesome (at least as far as the public knows) aquatic picture star DeeAnna Moran, happy and wholesome. When Whitlock is drugged by Jeff Lewis and the rumored to be dead Wayne Knight (silly Internet—he’s alive, but the way this year is going who knows?) and delivered to Communist retreat, Mannix’s job begins to unravel.

I wish the film felt as fast and loose as Mannix’s life, because there does seem to be a lot to like here. Brolin plays Mannix the way Humphrey Bogart might have in his day. Clooney and Swinton seem incapable of ever being lousy—let’s face it, he was pretty good way back when he was the heartthrob on THE FACTS OF LIFE. The plot has a kind of lightheartedness about it buoyed by the Coen Brothers’ knack for wonderful dialogue, at its best here in the scene where director Laurence Laurentz tries to coach up Hobie Doyle. Arlen Ehrenreich was a revelation opposite Ralph Fiennes’s Laurentz, and their repartee was the highlight of the film for me. Hearing the two actors battle of enunciation in American Heehaw and the King’s English was comic gold. Cameos by both Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown were a fun surprise for me. It’s too bad they didn’t share screen time together, but I doubt the Coen boys would stoop so low as to include a HIGHLANDER gag in this period piece.

Alas, Joel and Ethan Coen’s direction didn’t feel as footloose and fancy free as their stars’ performances. None of the numerous subplots seemed to reach a satisfying conclusion. Clooney’s ransom gets paid, no twists, just your average kidnapping gone right. We see very little more of Fiennes and Ehrenreich’s hilarious interplay, which could have a great movie by itself. Scarlett Johansson’s subplot is all but forgotten. Coen Brothers’ regular cast member Frances McDormand and the popular Jonah Hill are in the show but not in any way memorable.  Veronica Osorio is lovely and funny, but her appearance seems to come out of nowhere, and I wonder if her scene wouldn’t have worked better if it was Scarlett in there rather Veronica, who would have been fun to use with Ralph Fiennes as well. Channing Tatum was also on hand, but feels largely disconnected from the rest of the plot. 

I can and do enjoy the occasional “slice of life” style of storytelling, but HAIL, CAESAR! feels like it just never pays off. It’s not terribly laugh-out-loud funny, it’s not terribly serious, and it’s not terrible. It just feels like the punch lines fell flat, the plot seemed to have no climax at all, and in turn the performances feel a little wasted, as if they tried too hard and succeeded unspectacularly. HAIL, CAESAR! might tickle your cinematic taste buds, but me, I wish I had ordered the Waldorf.  

3.0 / 5.0