Review: Hail, Caesar!

I never thought I’d call a film by Ethan and Joel Coen dull. No Country for Old Men was fantastic. The Big Lebowski was hilarious. Even True Grit, which had just an atrocious ending, was an otherwise great movie. Holy crap, was Hail, Caesar! boring.

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It’s not terrible. When I left the cinema, I was prepared to call it a bad movie. I’ve since decided that this is unfair. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just incredibly disappointing for a Coen-Brothers movie. The issue with having such an excellent success rate is that your audiences begin to expect you to maintain that level of success.

It’s probably the most uneventful film by the brothers, and certainly the tamest: it’s their first ever film to attain a PG-rating here in Australia, though not the first to be assigned a PG-13-rating in the USA. It’s best defined as a comedy, but it’s really not all that funny. Only two thoroughly amusing scenes spring to mind. The first was ruined by the trailer, for the trailer was simply the entirety of the joke, where Ralph Fiennes‘ character, a director (who only appears in two scenes) fruitlessly attempts to get a good take out of the actor Hobart Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich. Hysterical. Ehrenreich, incidentally, was the only member of Hail, Caesar!‘s cast who didn’t seem comfortable enough with the directors to simply phone in his performance and have a good time.

The second amusing scene is between our main character, Eddie Mannix (played… fine, I guess?… by Josh Brolin), and four religious leaders of different faiths. The bickering, especially by Robert Picardo‘s rabbi, was quite funny. Our plot follows Mannix for the most part. In the early fifties, Mannix is head of production at Capitol Pictures, a major film studio. He spends most of his time putting out fires, the biggest featured in this film being the kidnapping of a movie-star played appropriately by George Clooney, by communists, during the filming of what is obviously supposed to be Ben-Hur. This is pretty much the entire plot, with a lot of sub-plots wrapped around it. Each scene feels more akin to a sketch, with little bearing on anything else, its own self-contained joke-machine. The problem is that there aren’t a great deal of jokes, despite the film supposedly being a comedy.

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It’s an interesting exercise in jumping back half a century, and it’s an obvious love-letter to the era and to film in general. Two great scenes involved Scarlett Johannsen and Channing Tatum performing in a synchronised-swimming sequence and a dance number, respectively (apparently Tatum can sing, and the song, No Dames!, was thoroughly enjoyable). These scenes were great, and passionately directed – they were also both mostly removed from the plot.

The whole thing isn’t great, but it’s obviously of a superior quality to that of your average Hollywood film – these are the Coen Brothers, after all. There are a few good scenes, and there’s a nice overall “feel” to the movie, but Hail, Caesar!‘s script lets it down. It’s funny, but only in a few places, and the story isn’t bad, but it’s also left thoroughly unexplored. The cast is underutilised (though several were glorified cameos, and this is okay), and the characters don’t seem to have any… character. Neither a lack of humour nor a lack of story are deal-breakers, but with a lack of both what reason do you have for watching the movie? As it stands, Hail, Caesar! is neither hilarious nor engaging, and it really should be at least one of the pair.

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Alex Falzon

Alexander Falzon is a film critic, screenwriter and short story author. An RMIT graduate, Alexander enjoys watching and discussing film, and mixes an excellent martini. You can hit him up on Twitter @alexanderfalzon and read more of his reviews at alexfalzon.com.

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