Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! Teaser poster - Wikipedia

Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

This review opens with a confession: I haven’t seen Barton Fink, the Coen brothers’ tale of the inherent seediness of 1940s Hollywood. This confession, however, is almost entirely unrelated to the rest of this review of Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ latest look into of Tinseltown, this time set in the early 1950s.

Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures, and the man who makes the studio’s problems go away. The film follows the many problems, in the form of other human beings, that tug on planet Eddie like a series of satellites. They mess with his tides, but none of them seriously threaten his orbit. Eddie Mannix is steadfastly effective.

And this is Eddie Mannix’s story. George Clooney as Baird Whitlock is more plot device than character – deliberately, of course; he remains in costume for the entirety of the film. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) simply plays a series of comical cameos. And just to spite those of us who marvel at the fact that no two of Tilda Swinton’s roles are the same, she plays identical twins with identical jobs. Nobody other than Eddie does anything; even the wholesome Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and the not-so-wholesome DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) have the story – or rather, Eddie – happen to them. Nothing makes you wonder what would happen to them after the day is over, let alone in ten years’ time.

In fact, it’s hard to wonder about even Eddie Mannix beyond the end credits. The film wraps up neatly, like a sitcom episode, everything back where we started. I can’t help thinking that this neatness comes at the cost of any meaningful exploration of God, the nature of belief, the difference between art and entertainment, or the mechanics of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Which is not to say that Hail, Caesar! is a bad film. But compared to Altman’s biting The Player, it seems subdued, relying on blunt historical context and film references for substance.

That said, the historical context is painted well. While The Player feels a little uncanny-valleyishly modern, (Baggy tan suits! Far-too-interesting ties! Oh, the nineties.) Hail, Caesar! has a sandy colour palette that reminds you of the movie lots reflected in gold at the beginning of a Warner Bros. intro. It is – with a powerful dose of irony – a heavily stylised vision of an already idealised age.

As it happens, Eddie Mannix was a real person. Does it matter? The Dude Lebowski wasn’t real – well, he couldn’t have been real. The Eddie Mannix of MGM history may well have lived just like the Eddie Mannix of Hail, Caesar!, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. In the end, I found the protagonist a bit too plausible, the jokes a bit too cute, the film a bit too polished (albeit polished with gorgeous colours).

Another confession: I still haven’t seen Barton Fink. Maybe I should.

Enjoyable, but not as much fun as expected. Three stars.

Alternative Plot: A Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs spinoff: The weather forecast was wrong. This isn’t ice falling from the sky – it’s cos, parmesan, croutons and egg.

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