Movies about Hollywood have become their own genre, with films like Adaptation, Sunset Boulevard, or Singin’ in the Rain pulling the glamorous cover off of the film industry’s ugly past. The celebrated Coen Brothers’ most recent film, Hail, Caesar!, is the genre’s newest addition; unfortunately, aside from a few scattered, marvelous scenes, the Coen Brothers’ writing surprisingly lacks central focus, leaving the film feeling like a mismatched collage of jokes rather than a complete story.
Known for No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit (2010), Fargo (1996), and The Big Lebowski (1998), the Coen Brothers are no strangers in the film industry, known especially for their witty dialogue. Yet when taking on Hollywood, the duo’s jokes rely too much on dialogue and insider film knowledge to really be funny. The story follows 1950s studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he tries to save the studio’s epic, Roman picture, Hail, Caesar!, after the kidnap of its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The film is based on MGM executive Eddie Mannix, known for cover-ups and gangster-esque behavior to keep the studio running. Of course, the film stars many current Hollywood icons, including Alden Ehrenreich (B-Western star Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (director Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (mermaid star DeeAnna Moran), Jonah Hill (studio pressman Joseph Silverman), and Channing Tatum (Gene Kelly-inspired Burt Gurney). Yet, for all its stars and industry references, the narrative falls flat. The studio hardly seems to mind Whitlock’s kidnap, making each scene feel added on with no purpose of moving the narrative forward. The Coen Brothers surely don’t intend for the film to be narratively stunning, but it feels episodic, and the humor noticeably suffers. Each satirical event seems whimsical and blasé, as if just thrown in rather than serving a larger narrative or purpose.
Yes, these absurd concepts are hysterical. Mannix even invites a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi for advice on the depiction of Christ in their picture. The idea alone of Hollywood approaching religious figures for advice is hysterical, yet the actual scene does not live up to its own idea. Aside from the expected arguments between Catholicism and Judaism summarized in the rabbi’s comment, “these men are screwballs,” the scene does not evolve beyond one-liners.
The Coen Brothers’ use of slapstick unfortunately falls into the same trend. Whitlock’s ridiculous Roman costume becomes predictable and overused. Certain gags do work, but only because they are part of a larger scene, such as when silent Western star Doyle is cast in a talkie drama with serious director Laurence Laurentz. In a wild, lovely scene mocking genre, actors, and directors, Laurentz agonizingly tries to teach the cowboy-accented Doyle to say the simple line “would that it were so simple.” It’s hysterical, from the sight gags as Doyle struggles to open a large, fake marble door, to the extras holding full glasses of (probably fake) champagne, or Laurentz giving Doyle a line reading reminiscent of Steve Martin’s hamburger scene in The Pink Panther.
Ehrenreich and Fiennes are fabulous, constantly stealing the scene from each other, but other performances are upstaged by niche film jokes. In trying to figure out Whitlock’s captor, Doyle reasons it may be the extras, because “you never know what’s going on in the mind of an extra.” Even if you do understand, the joke isn’t that funny. Other jokes are funny, but subdued, such as when Mannix watches footage and we hear the muffled voice of the director off screen tell Whitlock to “squint his eyes more” when he looks at the Christ character. This humor takes effort; it’s rewarding, but you really need to pay attention.
Being about Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! admits to having a very narrow, intended audience of film people. The Coen Brothers do still include pop jokes, like references to Hollywood’s absurd, white-centric casting when Mannix scrambles to replace Whitlock in their Roman epic and whines “they can’t give the scene to some Roman shmo.” (Hint hint #Oscarssowhite, or the most recent Hollywood flop, Gods of Egypt, where they cast white Gerard Butler to play an Egyptian hero). The film becomes most enjoyable only to those who understand and notice industry references, or to those viewers who research references after the fact (such as the real MGM executive Eddie Mannix and pressman Joseph Silverman’s fabricating DeeAnna Moran’s adopting her own child to avoid a pregnancy scandal). Hail, Caesar! can be funny, but you need to work at it, and ultimately, the Coen Brothers (maybe admittedly) just want to tease Hollywood without questioning its larger role at all.
Catch Hail, Caesar! at Kimball’s and Tinseltown throughout the week. Check in after spring break for the review of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film, the Hungarian film about WWII and Auschwitz, Son of Saul.