Three out of five stars
It’s not going to work for everyone, but there’s a lot here to like.
There’s a lot going on in this new movie from the Coen Brothers, the 17th film by my count that they’ve written together and directed, and you have to give them credit for always keeping the audience on its toes. From the Western remake "True Grit," to the 1930s prison break adventure "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to the snowy black comedy of "Fargo," you never know what setting or decade you’re going to get.
When it comes to the Coen Brothers, I’m like a drug addict, chasing the high I felt the first time I saw "Fargo," or "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lebowski." I go into each film hoping for a repeat experience, but it seems more often than not lately, I don’t quite get the buzz I’m looking for. The pieces are there but it never quite comes together for me.
I felt like that during a lot of "Hail, Caesar!"
The film follows Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, a powerful “fixer” for the fictitious movie studio Capitol Pictures in the 1950s. It’s Mannix’s job to go around squashing gossip, paying off blackmailers, and putting out various other fires. He’s a conflicted guy -- sometimes what he has to do isn’t always ethical, and he spends a lot of time at confession. Then Capitol’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped for ransom from the set of their latest film epic – also titled "Hail, Caesar!" – and it’s up to Mannix to get him back.
Brolin carries "Hail, Caesar!" and when the movie’s good, it’s really good, bordering on great. The comedy really lands -- a scene where he has to slap around Clooney’s character is fantastically played by both. The expression on Clooney’s face alone, which sadly is in the trailer and commercials, is almost worth the price of admission. And a scene between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich is an instant classic: Fiennes plays a rather tightly-wound director, and Ehrenreich a thickly-accented cowboy actor forced into a film about fancy high-society types. When Fiennes tries to get Ehrenreich to give a specific line reading, it’s gut-bustlingly funny.
Ehrenreich was a surprise to me. I wasn’t familiar with him before this, though we’ve seen him before, with parts in "Blue Jasmine" and "Beautiful Creatures." But this is the first time I’ve ever noticed him, and he has a very likable kind of “aw shucks” quality here. And he does some fantastic horseback riding. Also of note: Tilda Swinton, hilariously playing twin gossip columnists, and Scarlett Johansson as a surly synchronized swimming star are fantastic, though their screen time is all too brief. A dance scene by Channing Tatum also is a lot of fun, but seemingly comes out of nowhere.
What gets a lot more screen time, and slows down the film, is a subplot about communism that really seemed to drag. If the Coen brothers were trying to make any point in the film, it felt as if it was in those scenes. I know there was commentary there and throughout the film -- on fame and celebrity, corporate control of art and similar broader themes -- but I couldn’t really seem to process it. Maybe the dialogue was just too thick, or I just wasn’t in the mood to think so hard, but a lot of the film seemed to go over my head.
And I don’t think I was alone. After my screening ended, in a packed theater, there was complete silence. No clapping, no laughing, not even the sound of people turning to their seat mates and wondering what just happened. It was the silence of a more than a hundred people trying to process what they’d just seen. If they’re anything like me, they’re still trying to figure it out.
You know that old quote that goes “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?” "Hail, Caesar!" is a bunch of great parts that don’t seem to make a great whole.