‘Hail, Caesar!’ is misguided homage


This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here.

A satiric mystery set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, “Hail, Caesar!” follows “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, “Sicario”) as he struggles to deal with the kidnapping of his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, “Gravity”), as well as the numerous problems of the many celebrities and filmmakers he manages. Featuring a star-studded cast that also includes Channing Tatum (“Magic Mike”), Scarlett Johansson (“The Avengers”), Tilda Swinton (“Adaptation”) and Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), the film attempts to both lampoon and celebrate the magic and insanity of the era that would define film for generations.

If anyone seems up to the task of capturing a setting as peculiar and delightful as 1950s Hollywood, it’s Coen brothers Joel and Ethan (“Fargo”). As with nearly every film in the Coen canon, the duo controls the directing, writing and editing duties, which is usually a credit to the focus and passion of their craftsmanship. However, that system is what turns this film into an occasionally amusing but mostly incoherent mess.

Without anyone to reign in a script bubbling with ideas, the narrative whizzes along at a dizzying pace, with a set piece that seems to have no relation to the overall plot happening every few minutes. While a majority of these portions are dazzling parodies of classic Hollywood tropes, the Coens can’t decide whether to devote the film to them or actually have a plot. The plot summary does little justice to the film as it really takes up only half of the proceedings, with the other half consisting of the aforementioned scenes of film shoots, confusing monologues about capitalism and communism, and pointless subplots. The lack of cohesion may be a testament to the wacky weirdness of old Hollywood, but it ultimately doesn’t work.

While the Coens can’t seem to decide what to do with all the gold they’ve struck, the film of course has its merits. The film is almost perfectly cast, with each performer turning in exceptional work and lighting up the screen with each passing scene. It’s important to note, however, that some of the stars receiving top billing are given almost nothing to do, and ultimately are wasted in the incohesion of the plot.

In fact, the absolute star of the show is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, (“Beautiful Creatures”) who stars as Hobie Doyle, a humble and well-meaning cowboy swept into the madness of celebrity. Ehrenreich brings an unexpected sweetness and charm to the role, which could have easily been a useless stereotype. He captures all the starry allure of the small town hero in a world he doesn’t quite understand, and the risky casting pays off.

As for the film’s imagery, Roger Deakins (“Sicario”) further bolsters his reign as king of cinematographers by making the film utterly gorgeous from start to finish. Every scene is a marvel to look at, from the colorful and bright film sets to the dark and rainy shores of the Pacific. Deakins is simply the master at making films feel simultaneously real and ethereal, and this film is no exception.

Despite a dazzling style and a cast playing to their best strengths, “Hail, Caesar!” is a mess that never seems to find its footing or figure out what it wants to say. You can’t say the Coens didn’t give it their all, but sometimes it may be important to know that it is possible to give a little too much.

Ryan Ninesling