Cert: 12A / 106 mins / Dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen / Trailer
Ah, Joel and Ethan strike again, and masterfully, confounding the expectations I didn't even realise I had. Although I'd watched No Country For Old Men on its release, it wasn't until 2014's Inside Llewyn Davis (a film which baffles and beguiles me in equal measure to this very day) that I realised I'd never really latched onto the Coen brothers' work. While I still haven't digested the entire back catalogue, I thought I'd now seen enough of the classics to get a better handle on where they're coming from. To say that Hail, Caesar! wasn't the movie I was expecting isn't entirely fair, but it's not completely the tight, zippy caper that the trailer was selling either. And I only say all this because the Coens are, by this point, in a position to release exactly the film they want to be seen by audiences, produced and finished to their own standards. In short, I'd like to think that anything in this movie I didn't really 'get' was down to me alone. Although I still don't think that's the case...
Set in 1951 during the tail-end of Hollywood's golden-age, Hail, Caesar! follows Capitol Studios head 'fixer' Eddie Mannix, a man desperately trying to corral the studio's talent into behaving on-and-off camera and keep tinsel-town's press and gossip-columnists at arm's length, all the while struggling to make time for his domestic life and weigh up a lucrative job-offer from a global arms manufacturer. When the studio's most prominent A-lister, Baird Whitlock is kidnapped and held to ransom, Mannix has to pull strings and lean on contacts to retrieve him; and it's these twenty-seven hours that we spend in his company while he does it…
Throughout all of this, Hail, Caesar! is imbued with an impatient air clearly intended to come off as chaotic-farce, although it feels more like a general lack of focus. With the kind of casting we saw in Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, a raft of tertiary characters are introduced which hang around too long to be cameos, but aren't written fully enough to be supporting roles (in fact, only one of these gets any real ending at all, the rest seem to be abandoned or given closure with a line of someone else's dialogue).
In much the same way that MGM's Singin' In The Rain was a film purposely assembled from disparate songs and set-pieces, there's almost a suspicion that Universal commissioned the Coen Brothers to make a comedy from sketches and ideas that were already lying around in one form or another. Although the movie just about works as a whole, some elements (and casting choices) work more smoothly than others, and there seems to be half a potential classic in there needing more development.
But there are some outstanding scenes in the film, the highlight of which for me was Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich holding a script discussion which borders on Stewart Lee-levels of testing the limits of an audience's patience (I found it increasingly hilarious, the rest of the audience seemed to grow conversely irritated; complete with a punchline several scenes later which my fellow patrons didn't seem to acknowledge. The danger of being a comedy-snob, I'm afraid). When the script is sharp, you could shave with it; the rest of the time it kind of bumbles along amiably.
On an entirely personal level, I'd have enjoyed the film a lot more without Michael Gambon's narration pulling me out of the experience every twenty minutes or so. Partly because he's being the same Michael Gambon™ that he uses for his advert-work, devaluing the artistic currency of his CV with every smug utterance, but mainly because he needlessly narrates exactly what we're watching on-screen anyway...
By no means a failure, Hail, Caesar! is watchable enough but doesn't have the drive or insight we know the Coens are capable of. The film is a bit of a curiosity, and sometimes a bit of a mess.
Although I'll freely admit that it's a bit of a mess which I'll probably get more out of when I watch it again...
Grand Budapest Hotel, My Week With Marilyn, Singin' In The Rain.
Only if you're a purist, although both the film's setting and its setpieces are a glorious homage to cinema itself.
I'd say not quite, your mileage will vary.
Level 1: Hail, Caesar! stars none other than Clancy 'Savage Opress' Brown.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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