Hail, Caesar! (2016)
I think it was the exclamation point in the title that first aroused my suspicions, as any film ‘insisting’ upon itself in such a manner should always be treated with a wide berth of scepticism. My second warning sign was that rather lacklustre trailer, whilst my interest was piqued I didn’t find myself chuckling along to the usual Coen parade of goofballs and grotesques, but I figured we’d give the team the benefit of the doubt given their pedigree. It’s been 3 years since the last film Inside Lleylyn Davis which I found one of their more successful recent pictures, a film with just enough ambivalence and to retain an interest and ponder over the Coen’s increasingly obtuse ideological indictors. As independent operators the duo have forged success through an uncompromising attitude, writing their own scripts which have been occasionally blessed with academy award recognition, working within the system in terms of studio financing but resolutely taking their idiosyncratic look at established genres, from the gangster movie to spy-caper, the screwball comedy to windswept Western. Alas however with great pride can come great arrogance, and I fear that we might have come to the point were the Coen’s are at risk of disappearing within their own orbouros, as for me Hail, Caesar! is their worst film since The Ladykillers. There have been some faint rumbling of discontent recently with a some commentators wryly observing how very, very white and middle class their universe is, and maybe some of the same exasperated characterization modes that are similarly problematic in the likes of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne projects – broadly spread, unrealistic spirits that they treat with barely concealed distain, divorced from any empathy or recognisable human traits beyond the cartoonish, the bumbling boisterous. But in Hail, Caesar! The Coen’s start with a real person, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), studio development director , a man whom is as happy greasing the palms of a few policemen to look the other way as he is chairing a religious summit with members of the faith from across the spiritual spectrum, in order to glean their ecclesiastical opinions on his currently shooting biblical epic starring the dashing leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) It’s 1951, the peak of the studio system, when such bloated widescreen epics were seen as the silver screens bulwark to the growing power of television, with Mannix ricocheting from one production crisis on the back-lot of Capital Pictures, a fun but unexploited link to their earlier dalliance with the Hollywood history in 1991’s Barton Fink.
All the usual ingredients are here – Carter Burwell on strings, Roger Deakins on viewfinder vectors, the Coen’s own editing nom-de-plume Roderick James on the Stienbeck. It is something of a mystery then that Hail, Caesar! is such a catastrophic chore, a comedy without jokes, a mystery without mystique. The plot attempts to pinion its charms on the kidnapping of Baird by a loose affiliation of communist screenwriters, demanding a a ransom to support the comrades cause in the mother country. These designs promise an ocean or merriment and mirth emerging from the whole concept of HUAC, the blacklist and the paranoid perambulations have forged the spine of many a movie, but the approach and tone is as flippant to be irritating here, as the plot can’t decide whether it’s a farce, a comedy, a drama on Mannix’s existential crisis or some balanced combination of the three. The script seems to care less for cause and effect, of yearning to build a mirthful, mechanical momentum, as instead we are forced to endure chains of scenes featuring some wretched and lazy Hollywood archetypes limp from one misfire to another, and crucially the words and interactions just aren’t funny, the story meandering and malignant in its pointlessness. Comedy in this broadest sense is a difficult entity to critically conceptualize as one man’s hernia inducing hilarity is another man’s James Corden, but if judging by the reactions of my peers is anything to go by the wider praise that this film has generated is just inconceivable and they must have seen another picture – my crowd was stone cold silent throughout the film, before shuffling out of the auditorium during the end titles in a rather bemused daze. OK, fine, at a push the crooning cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) suddenly dropped into the Noel Coward alike costume drama directed by a cameoing Ralph Fiennes does just about prompt a weary grin, but this was the only smirk in the entire picture, all 106 minutes of it. Tilda Swinton plays identical twin gossip columnists in the vein of the talon typewriter twittering of Hedda Hooper or Louella Parsons in their heyday, the comedy seemingly emanating (or not) from the fact that they arrive at each location roughly thirty seconds after each other. Cameos from the likes of Scarlett Johansson as an aqua-musical mermaid star in the mould of Esther Williams or Channing Tatum stepping into Gene Kelly’s dancing shoes in some Anchors Away clone give the Coen’s an excuse to throw in a lavish musical montage, but these asides yield no narrative nor comedic rhyme nor reason, conforming instead to the awful comedy trend of merely referencing something and assuming this is funny purely by the act of reference alone – quite frankly boys, I expected more of you.
You don’t need to be some cultural Sherlock Holmes to discern that there is a twin agenda here, as the themes of the movie can be broadly allocated into one of two, conjoined conceptual headings. The first is a ramble through the intersection of art and commerce, the ideology of crafting mere entertainment through a powerful medium while wider political warfare rages across geographies of the land and intellect, the propaganda potential of cinema during its cultural apotheosis before younger and sleeker media models such as Television and the Internet eroded the foundations of the tinseltown film factory . This is framed through the existential crisis that Mannix is enduring with significant job offers on his plate from more substantial industries, such as Lockheed Martin who are courting outstanding logistical and resourceful talents as his, a man whom in one moment is helping a starlet get dressed after an ill-conceived photoshoot, the next is manufacturing a romance between two of his leading players to misdirect attention for an unexpected, and unmarried scandalous pregnancy. This has trapped Mannix in a confessional, catholic tryst in the scene which tellingly opens Hail, Caesar!, as he grapples with the urge to do the right thing, to be a good father and husband and protect his extended studio family, all for the good of the company, a good man keeping the faith which also finds its clumsy mirrors in the staidly staged epic which the Coens have modelled on the likes of King Of Kings or Quo Vadis, the Hollywood epics which were the last desperate grasp for relevance and spectacle as the studio system started to dismantle itself. This is all well and good but an engine needs energy to run upon be it amusing gags, fun characters of something resembling a engaging and entertaining plot, three crucial spearheads which Hail, Caesar! simply and irrevocably fails to formulate.
There is a strange preoccupation for punctuality and timekeeping in the film which one assumes is intended as a signifier of some deeper, mercurial mediation on the concepts of the infinite and the ethereal indiscrimancy of time, or it could just by the Coens throwing in some oblique references that they haven’t particularly thought through, moving by instinct rather than intellect which can, on occasion be an efficient and effective form of prose. Take the opening of A Serious Man for example, a picture that they are on the record as stat9ing they were never entirely sure how the historical fairy tale prologue connected to the Californian setting of the remainder of the film. It isn’t clear how that sequence plugs into the wider mosaic, the narrative jigsaw of what I consider one of their absolute best films, but it all seems to flow organically and occupy the same thematic and artistic eco-system. These instincts seem to have got lost in the wilderness of pre-production planning, resulting in this confused and chaotic chore of a film, which from about forty minutes into I was actively willing to end. It reminds me of Inherent Vice as well as the lesser works from the Coens such as The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, films where the genesis is gloamed with potential glory, where the idea seems ripe for exploitation but something has curdled between concept and script, resulting in a flagging, fitful work which never achieves anything approaching a chortle cruising altitude. It gives me no pleasure as a major fan of the Coens to report that rarely has the dream factory been so dulled by dogma and doubt, in a tale which more closely resembles the failure of the very films they are mocking than you’d want to believe;