In the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar!, the Hollywood film system of 1951 takes us deep into the daily madness undertaken by Capitol Picture's studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he struggles to keep his studio and mental state from cracking. Solving one crisis after another - including an unplanned pregnancy by Scarlett Johansson's twice-divorced chain smoker, a western lead (Alden Ehrenreich) horribly miscast in Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) drawing room drama, and twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinson) - Mannix also has a personal struggle. He's been courted by Lockheed to head a comfy job and the chance to have dinner every night with his wife.
But soon all of that is superseded by the news that Capitol's lead Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has disappeared while shooting a Jesus film set in Roman times. We later learn that he's been shuffled off to a Santa Monica beach house filled with disgruntled Hollywood writers who've signed on with the Communist Party and spend their day philosophizing their way through tea sandwiches. Utilizing a top-flight secretary and nerves of steel, Mannix must employ his own actors in a manhunt for the square-jawed buffoon Whitlock before Communists can shuffle him away, all while deciding if this sort of chaotic life is really for him.
Ill-content from the beginning, Hail Caesar! never truly locks in. Like many Coen Brothers films, you wonder what it is that you're watching and seeking the answers long after you've experienced it. That's usually a satisfying journey, but here that effort yields few satisfying results. The real problem with Hail Caesar! is not its exceptional cast or expert camerawork, but the long moments of boredom that grow out of the Coen Brothers' script. They take their immense talents for dark comedy and their exceptional casting prowess and waste it on several arcs that don't affect the bottom line. Several are thrown in as vignettes designed to elicit either laughter or condemnation about the Hollywood film system; but little of it ever truly works. We essentially have a 30-minute film, propped up by several (albeit great) 50's style performances and all those unnecessary arcs. But some of those set pieces, including Channing Tatum's musical/tap-dancing sailor stint, are a sheer delight.
Hail Caesar!'s story is all about Mannix's journey: the daily crisis that's his work and the hilarious guilt over sneaking a few cigarettes to calm his nerves infuriates his priest who tells he confesses too often over too little. Brolin is the center of Capitol's wheel and this film, his steady nerves keeping us awake, and it's great to see him move from one disaster to another. Brolin's particularly good when paired with Clooney near the end, who's really acting with only one half of his immeasurable talent. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, Clooney ran wild, uttering now famous lines that still find their way into my weekly conversations; here, he's just another plot device on Brolin's To-Do list. The rest of the cast too is hilarious one minute and then horribly bored/boring the next. Johansson and Hill aren't needed at all here, and they're not around enough to be of any worth. I truly wanted more of Fiennes, who returns to his now-classic Budapest Hotel shtick. He and Ehrenreich would have been a hilarious duo in their own movie; instead they're sandwiched in for too few moments together.
Hail Caesar! still manages to entertain, even though I found myself imagining funnier versions of every joke. That's never a good sign when you're paying money to see professionals doing less than your imagination. But don't blame Cinematographer Roger Deakins for any failures: his camerawork is as always impeccable, capturing the old school movie lots along with a hilarious half-naked statue who's missing his torso. Deakins also bathes every scene in gorgeous colors, while the sumptuous costumes and set designs capture the splendor of the period. Like those old films, everything's great until you peel back the real motivations of the characters, few of which hold and water or our attention.
Hail Caesar! is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking and has a runtime of 106 minutes.
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