Hail, Caesar! is a hot mess

The Coen Brothers made a musical comedy with a million characters, plot threads and axes to grind.

Hail, Caesar!
George Clooney (right) in Hail, Caesar!

Generally, when I walk out of a Coen Brothers movie, my reaction is split between elation and profound jealousy. They’ve become so good at what they do, so easily identifiable at their own brand of genius, that I end up feeling bummed out that I’m never going to be responsible for something as good as A Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s admittedly a weird way to parse movies, but I’d never really thought about it until I didn’t feel it walking out of their newest film, Hail, Caesar! The Coens have the kind of track record where even their worst film is preferable to a great majority of others’ best, but even their worst films to date have had a kind of narrative cohesion that Hail, Caesar! doesn’t. It’s perfectly watchable, perfectly Coen-esque in all respects and yet…

Harry Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” at Capitol Pictures in 1951. More than simply a producer, Mannix is a problem solver. He keeps tabs on every film, star, writer and (if he can help it) extra gathered on the Capitol lot on any given day. That means dealing with the less-than-desirable casting of a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) in a high-society drama directed by a milquetoast pedant (Ralph Fiennes); finding a solution to the problem of a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson) who no longer fits in her mermaid suit; dodging a pair of twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) with an axe to grind against the studio; fielding the offers of a Lockheed Martin executive who wants to persuade Mannix to join the nuclear bomb business; and, most pressingly, locating Bhaird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestigious religious epic who has gone missing.

Scarlett Johansson

It’s a lot to juggle for any film but it’s particularly scattershot and all-encompassing considering the usual razor-sharp focus of the Coens. It’s a movie bursting with ideas and love for the period that feels simultaneously reined-in and sloppily anarchic. The film ping-pongs from musical sequences (including one where Channing Tatum, as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man, tap dances on every surface of a bar) to the requisite Coen-esque theological discussions (there’s a movie about Jesus in here, y’know) to verbal shenanigans straight from classic screwball comedies to a rather thorough tutorial on Communism. The Coens lampoon both current values (the film has been called sexist, homophobic, right-wing, reactionary etc.) and the wholesome image of Hollywood in a way that feels a little misguided at best and like a temper tantrum at its worst.

Hail Caesar Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum (front)

Plot threads are picked up and abandoned constantly, and it’s hard not to feel like some cast members (Johansson, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand) are a little wasted here. Even Brolin, being in every scene, sort of melts into the scenery half of the time. Although its aesthetics, themes and sense of humour are very far removed from the work of Tarantino, it’s the first Coen Brothers movie that feels like a Tarantino film in its scattershot, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach.

Hail, Caesar! is ultimately a satire that’s only really funny when it’s doing something other than swiping at everything from religion to sexual orientation to political leanings. It’s a bit strange that filmmakers as experienced at cynicism and black comedy picked this rambunctious overstuffed comedy as their angry-old-man hill to die on. The misanthropy and love of futility that the Coens have made their calling card has been better served before, but as far as lower-tier, weirdly lightweight balls of confusion go, I’d still rather see one by the Coens. ■

Hail, Caesar! opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 5. Watch the trailer here: