The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, returned to the big screen Friday with the period piece set around a post World War II movie studio, Hail, Caesar!.
The usual cast of characters and character actors fill the quirky story and beautifully-conceived and filmed scenes.
The first red flag arises when the viewer looks at the calendar. The winter months after holiday vacations hide bad films like pedestrians in Minnesota. Of the few people who see them, even fewer expect to be pleasantly surprised by what they find.
But the Coen Brothers are filmmaking icons, deserving a closer look.
For those who love film, a trip through the Coen’s library of movies is a must. Films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski transcend the medium of film and live as part of the American lexicon.
Hail, Caesar! pales in comparison to the Coens’ previous works. The film delivers all of the components skillfully, but it’s like a Ferrari with no battery; can that really be considered a great car?
The main story surrounds Eddie Mannix, a studio executive played by Josh Brolin. Mannix deftly handles the daily obstacles of running a 1950s Hollywood studio, cranking out multiple pictures with a stable of stars and their individual proclivities.
The setting of the various films in production allows the Coens to shoot scenes in the genres of the era.
Channing Tatum plays a singing sailor, about to be shipped out, in a funny musical number akin to South Pacific.
Scarlett Johansson plays a bathing beauty in a comedic recreation of Esther Williams and the synchronized swimming routines that once were very popular in film.
Alden Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy who performs lasso tricks but may not be leading man material, thanks to his southern twang.
All of these scenes are fantastic recreations of their historical counterparts. The Coens collaborate with Roger Deakins, the best cinematographer in the business, to give the audience a visual artwork worthy of all of their names.
The Ferrari is beautiful. The problem is under the hood.
The story turns when Baird Whitlock, George Clooney dressed as a Roman, falls prey to kidnappers. Mannix must fend off nosy gossip writers, twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton, and keep the studio’s productions from getting stalled, all while being headhunted by another large corporation seeking a new CEO.
The internal tension of Mannix’s decision tries to make the character more relatable and the farce more real, but it fails the way the external tension of the kidnapping fails–nothing is truly at stake.
Mannix must decide between the job that gives him enjoyment and a job offer that will make him filthy rich. The decision provides as much tension as deciding what flavor ice cream to buy, for those of us not lactose intolerant.
Jeff Lewis, who seemed to be cast as a guy who wouldn’t intimidate anyone, and Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame play the lurking extras who drug Clooney’s character, Whitlock, and deliver him to a luxury home overlooking the ocean. He awakens to find himself in the clutches of communists, not Ivan Drago communists, but Dalton Trumbo communists.
Whitlock actually enjoys his time in captivity and only briefly cares if the studio is looking for him. If he doesn’t care, why would the audience? Nothing is at stake.
Mannix pays the ransom, which becomes meaningless because a happy coincidence sends the singing cowboy to find Whitlock, and everyone lives happily ever after without a moment of lost sleep, sacrifice or trouble.
Watching Hail, Caesar! resembles attending the circus. There are magnificent sights and sounds in every corner of this big top. The ringmaster skillfully focuses the audience’s attention from one act to the next and the performers are all on cue.
Despite this, the circus lacks the death-defying acts of other circuses. The trapeze artists all have nets, the lion tamer wears a suit of armor and the fire juggler has on asbestos gloves. Nothing is at stake.
Any Coen brothers film should pique the audience members’ interest and Hail, Caesar! warrants a watch, just maybe not for 10 dollars and definitely not before Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and True Grit.