Considering how good the Coen Brothers can be, they have a troublingly inconsistent filmography. For every few classics, there’s a stinker. When you consider these guys are behind Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s hard to believe they made films as bad as Intolerable Cruelty and that abysmal Ladykillers remake. Hail, Caesar!, their latest effort, falls somewhere in the middle – which is a shame, considering it has been 12 years since it was announced.
Out now on DVD & Blu-ray, Hail, Caesar! is a mixed bag. The film depicts a day in the life of a Hollywood studio – Capitol Pictures, the same one featured in Barton Fink - in the 1950s, with Josh Brolin as a fixer whose job it is to keep things running smoothly. The film’s main plot revolves around the kidnapping of the Hollywood superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), but the film is an ensemble piece and multiple other stories are on the go alongside this main plot – the best of which features a rather unintelligent Western star (played by Alden Ehrenreich) attempting to branch out into more sophisticated work.
Hail, Caesar! didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth, but it didn’t leave a nice taste either. There was something about it that just didn’t blow me away the same way their earlier classics have. Anyone who knows the Coens will know they have several styles within their filmography. For example, their late-career highlight Inside Llewyn Davis falls into their bleak and melancholic style, while films like Intolerable Cruelty - and this - fall into their somewhat farcical style. It’s never been a style of theirs I’ve particularly enjoyed at the best of times, but I had hoped Hail, Caesar!’s cast and 1950s Hollywood setting would be enough to save it. Not quite…
But let’s start with the positives. The first thing you’ll notice when watching the film is the gorgeous cinematography from long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, and the era-authentic aesthetic of the film. The film is a visual feast with stunning attention to detail, in everything from the sets to the costumes, and Carter Burwell’s elegant score only strengthens this journey back to 1951. Never has 1950s Hollywood been portrayed so wonderfully on screen, and for that reason alone Hail, Caesar! isn’t a complete disaster.
The ensemble cast are all brilliant – Clooney is great as the pompous leading man Baird Whitlock, and Josh Brolin is brilliant as the tough but conflicted Eddie Mannix. Alden Ehrenreich, recently announced as the new young Han Solo, steals the show with his hilarious performance as Hobie Doyle, a young incompetent actor who should maybe stick to Westerns and away from high-society dramas. The cast is huge, and to compliment them all would take all day – but keep your eyes peeled for superb performances from Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Seinfeld legend Wayne Knight. “Newman!”
But even with a strong cast, Hail, Caesar! struggles to do anything remarkable. The Coen brothers peaked early in their careers and have always struggled to hit the same highs they did in the 1990s, and making films like this just feels like nothing more than futile attempts to replicate old successes. Sure it looks nice, but it’s a perfect example of style-over-substance – it’s really just a somewhat self-indulgent love letter to 1950s Hollywood. The plot is rather uninteresting and struggles to hold your attention, making you yearn for Jeff Bridges to show up in his cardigan with a white Russian in his hand. If you don’t get that reference, you need to reconstruct your life.
In conclusion, Hail, Caesar! has little to recommend. The cast are excellent and the visuals are enough to satisfy even the most stubborn viewer, but the whole thing just feels like a missed opportunity. If you’re interested in checking out a true story set in the same period, watch Trumbo. And if you like the Coen style, stick to The Big Lebowski and the other classics. While this one doesn’t reach the same lows as The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, it’s still an instantly forgettable piece of the Coen oeuvre.
The Coen Brothers reign may just be coming to an end. 3/5.
Hail, Caesar! at CeX
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