Hail, Caesar! is Consistently Amusing But Nothing to Hail Nor Exclaim About

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2016

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

I’ve got a movie here – Hail, Caesar! – all screwy.

And if you get that intro to this review, than you’ll appreciate the latest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, which makes a return to the Capitol Pictures of Barton Fink and features as much consideration of “The Future” as The Hudsucker Proxy. Those without devotion to the filmmakers, however, will find Hail, Caesar! to be too weird, too historically jumbled and rather pointless in its plot. Whichever way you view it, though, this is one of the duo’s most intricately and wholly thematic movies, and yes, one of their least satisfying in its superficial narrative. Also, extremely silly. Even for the Coens.

The most exciting thing for fans of the filmmakers is the introduction of Alden Ehrenreich to their stable of actors. If he becomes another of their regulars. Hopefully he becomes another of their regulars. Coen staples George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Josh Brolin and Frances McDormand, plus Scarlett Johansson making her first movie with the brothers as an adult, are all great here, but Ehrenreich steals the show from them and fellow new collaborators Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. It’s a star-making moment, in fact, that’s ironically in contrast to his character’s rebranding in the film.

Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy named Hobie Doyle, modeled after the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers but much younger, who is suddenly pulled off his latest on-location Western and thrown into a classy adaptation of a stuffy British play being shot on the Capitol lot. He’s good with horse stunts and lasso tricks, not so much with eloquent dialogue or just walking. One scene between Doyle and a British director (Fiennes) takes a joke about his twangy line reads and stretches it so far past the point of being funny that it circles back around and becomes funny all over again. The characterization, like most in Hail, Caesar!, is thinner than the cut-off crust from a finger sandwich.

That’s okay, because he’s just a supporting player in the story of Eddie Mannix, not to be confused with the real-life Hollywood fixer who worked at MGM. Here he seems more like a studio head who takes care of his own fixes, including the avoidance of scandal when Johansson’s Esther Williams-like aquatic actress becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Also, one of Capitol’s biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), is missing and surprisingly the reason isn’t because he’s on a bender. He’s been kidnapped by a group calling themselves “The Future.” Meanwhile, Mannix is being wooed by Lockheed Martin with the unrelated promise that they’re the future, while the movies are a thing of the past. Also, shorter hours.

Like many of the Coens’ pictures, this one is more pastiche and metaphorical play on ideas than the escapist entertainment it pays homage to. If audiences question the need for a seemingly drifting subplot where Doyle is ordered by the studio to escort a Carmen Miranda-inspired actress (Veronica Osorio), it’s because they don’t see a cowboy and a Latin American starlet on a date as a figurative depiction of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and/or the US’s subsequent involvement in Central and South American affairs to curb the spread of communism. Characters in this world are representational figures, not people.

The ideas in Hail, Caesar!, mostly regarding economic politics and religion, all come together perfectly in the end, but the movie still feels a bit light. On the surface, it’s more a collection of funny bits – Swinton as a set of competing twin gossip columnists and a Doyle picture called Lazy Ol’ Moon being highlights – than a completely memorable comedy. As far as the Coen Brothers oeuvre goes, it’s on par with Burn After Reading in terms of its being a brilliant script but less likable work. And it’s actually often more reminiscent of a Mel Brooks or Monty Python effort lampooning old Hollywood than of old Hollywood itself. There’s even a lisping Roman straight out of Life of Brian. Yet it doesn’t go so far with the spoofing nor does it aim for quite so many cheap laughs.

It’s constantly stated that there’s no such thing as a bad Coen Brothers movie, but there are plenty that aren’t masterpieces. This is one of them. There are also plenty that will only be fully enjoyed by people who are fans of all Coen Brothers movies. This is one of them. Hail, Caesar! is nothing to hail nor exclaim about, but it is a consistently amusing comedy that’s not nearly as much about the movies as it seems. Also, a fine showcase for Tatum’s singing and dancing talents.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.