By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
Someday, (hopefully) long from now, we’ll look back at the Coen Brothers pantheon, complete with cult classics, hidden gems and Oscar winners alike. And when we do, we’ll see “Hail, Caesar!” right smack in the middle, acting as a great intro to their work, but far from the best example of any singular trait or theme that flows through their canon.
This isn’t to say “Hail, Caesar!” is an unexceptional movie, however, it’s just that the most recent movie from the prolific writing-directing-editing-producing brothers is nothing but that — a Coen Bros. movie, for better or for worse.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), production head at fictional Capitol Pictures and a “fixer” who spends his time keeping his employed stars off the front page of the tabloids. Eddie spends these 24 hours searching for Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a household name, kidnapped from the set of his movie, “Hail, Caesar!” that morning by a mysterious organization.
“Hail, Caesar!” feels like a series of vignettes with an overarching plot, as Mannix’s daily routine introduces us to the lives of stuntman turned up-and-comer Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), frustrated director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and Gene Kelly-esque tap dancer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), among others.
The ensemble cast goes even further, with Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill all taking on speaking roles, although the latter two have brief appearances. These minor characters all feel developed but are quickly sifted through before we get the chance to acknowledge it, seeming to exist just to give Eddie Mannix’s world a greater sense of scale and a joke or two.
The acting in “Hail, Caesar!” is perfectly adequate, with each character articulated nicely by the respective actor. Brolin’s Mannix carries himself with the unstoppable swagger of a workingman. Clooney captures the ditzy self-indulgence we associate with major Hollywood stars. And, unsurprisingly, Channing Tatum steals the show, showing off his tap-dancing prowess and singing talents in the film’s best sequence.
Sadly, the ability to create deep characters out of seemingly everyday people is lost on “Hail, Caesar!” This is partially the fault of the aforementioned speed at which characters are introduced and removed, but also from the short runtime of the film, relatively speaking.
This lack of character development also distances us from the major themes that leak through “Hail, Caesar!” Heavy elements like the meaninglessness of everything or the folly of man feel ineffective here, as we do not directly connect with the events through our attachment with a character.
However, what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks in meaningful character development, it makes up for in humor. This is the Coens at their most openly funny since “The Big Lebowski,” featuring a plethora of small ‘blink-and-miss-it’ gags, hilarious conversations and extended jokes, and the ultimate realization of the “a priest, a rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a bar” set-up that still has me laughing as I write this.
“Hail, Caesar!” is an unabashedly referential movie as well, citing the various greats of ’50s cinema in every way possible. Roger Deakins’ always illustrious cinematography captures the kaleidoscopic essence of a Busby Berkeley picture, choreographer Christopher Gattelli creates a satirical dance number worthy of Gene Kelly and Baird Whitlock’s fictional epic feels and looks just like the historical dramas of the time.
This faithfulness to the past is a double-edged sword for “Hail, Caesar!” as the nostalgia and fondness it will imbue in more watched viewers is counteracted by the confusion that newer, less aware film fans may feel.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a great time for those with a fondness for classic film, newbies to the expansive work of the Coens or even those in search of a good laugh or two, but the veterans who were expecting a strong follow-up to the masterful “Inside Llewyn Davis” may feel disappointed.
As those well-versed viewers by now know, there is no such thing as a simply bad Coen Brothers movie, and “Hail, Caesar!” by no means begins that pattern.