Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, is a heartfelt and meticulously crafted love letter to Old Hollywood. But, is the film itself any good?Set in 1951, the story is a kind of day in the life tale focusing on Capitol Pictures Head of Production and “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix was a real person, but his depiction in Hail, Caesar! is completely fictionalized. As the film opens, Mannix is dealing with a host of problems. One of his leading ladies, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), is secretly pregnant with no husband – a no-no in post-war America; his boss is forcing him to transition western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a dramatic leading man, causing no shortage of headaches for his top director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); and Mannix is entertaining a major job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. On top of all this, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Hail, Caesar!, Capitol’s biggest production, has gone missing. Mannix receives a ransom note for $100,000 from a group calling themselves “The Future,” and he has to decide how best to handle this catastrophe. Can Mannix fix all his problems before gossip mavens Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) unravel everything and Hail, Caesar! has to stop production?
Hail, Caesar! is a nice love letter to Old Hollywood that pokes fun at it at the same time. There are several funny fake movies that are featured in the film and the depiction of the beginning of the end for the studio system is done very tongue-in-cheek. There are quite a few very funny moments in the film, one features an off-screen conference between Laurentz and Doyle, while another is an entire song and dance number from Channing Tatum. However, the film as a whole doesn’t hang together well enough to list Hail, Caesar! as one of the Coens’ best. The film feels like it is just an amalgamation of several different subplots that never come together as a cohesive whole. The plot involving Whitlock’s abduction is very straightforward and doesn’t really go anywhere. It shows that Whitlock is a dullard, but the film really isn’t about him. There are several parallels drawn between Hollywood and Communism, which the studios were trying to tamp down in order to avoid persecution from Congress, but all the subtext in the film doesn’t make it any more entertaining than as a lightweight dalliance.
The problems with the film do not extend to the actors, who all put in great performances. Clooney shows once again that he can play dumb just as well as he plays suave, and I wish we had actually gotten more time with Whitlock prior to his abduction. Brolin is great as always as the man trying to hold everything together at Capitol. His frequent scenes at confession are very humorous. Fiennes is absolutely hilarious as the no-nonsense director being saddled with an incompetent leading man and Johansson is fine in her role, but we don’t get nearly enough of her in the film. The real star of the film, though, is Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. He’s the brightest spot in the production and also the funniest. Watching him try to navigate the move from man of few words western star to leading man has several great moments and it also shows just how screwed up the old Hollywood system was.
Overall, while I can’t say I hated Hail, Caesar!, I can’t say that I loved it either. It’s definitely one of the Coens’ weakest films, but it may entertain as an afternoon matinee on cable. I just really didn’t care about these characters and the film doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell, which was frustrating. It definitely has its funny moments, but not enough to recommend it.