By: Akram Shaban
You may be wondering, what are Oscar-winning Coen brothers doing releasing a movie in early February? With a cast consisting of the likes of George Clooney and Josh Brolin, you’d think they would choose a later release date. But the Coens are no ordinary directors, and Hail, Caesar! is no ordinary film. Comprised mostly of a complex narrative, the film fails in the places most difficult to execute in a genre like this. In this case, the flaws, I found, surround the tone of the story. A marvelous production nonetheless.
The story portrays Eddie Mannix (Brolin), a studio manager at the fictional Capitol Pictures in the 1950’s. He’s trying to balance and solve the problems experienced by various actors and directors, all working on different productions. The most important issue involves the highest budget film being produced by the studio, Hail, Caesar! George Clooney plays the spoiled actor Baird Whitlock, who gets kidnapped while working on the production. Another story line includes Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who plays a western actor struggling to transition into more traditional drama roles. He’s shown experiencing a very tough time delivering lines in an “elegant” manner. Teaching him the new oratory techniques is Laurence Laurentz (with or without an accent, depending on how he feels) played by the great Ralph Fiennes. He tries his best to maintain his composure and be patient with Hobie, but ultimately he prefers a different star. Speaking of stars, there are other plots which may or may not entangle with each other as the story unfolds. One concerns Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill whose roles do not appear to serve any purpose other than to show the length a studio manager has to go to solve his studios problems. Explaining them would mean spoilers, so I’ll leave them out. An important plot line is the one concerning Burt (Channing Tatum), who stars a seaman in his, umm…. musical. Learning about his role would make those who haven’t seen the film easily predict the unfolding of the plot. So with this quick summary in mind, let’s dive into the review.
Hail, Caesar! is a tone driven film, meaning that it varies highly throughout, and is very much dependent on the shifting of its tone. At one point it’s a light-hearted parody of fifties clichés or values. At another point, it’s a serious portrayal of a man struggling to grapple with his responsibilities and his temptations. And sometimes the tone shifts with the characters themselves. For example, Mannix is sometimes shown seriously contemplating making an important life decision, discussing it with his wife and others as well. But at other points, he’d be slapping someone in classic fifties style. It’s as if he travels through dimensions in time, going from somebody living during the red scare, to a man with post-modern liberal ideals. I am not sure if the Coen Brothers intended it to turn out that way, but it really does feel that they pander to millennials quite a bit.
Another peculiar quality in the film is the nature of the characters which could be perceived as a flaw. Either way, I’m glad it played out the way it did. Mannix is definitely the only “real” character in the story. He’s three dimensional with a wide range of emotions and struggles to deal with. The same cannot be said about everyone else. Whitlock is the generic spoiled actor. He’s a foil to Mannix. He does not change or develop, remaining static the whole time. He provides for some great comic relief (really, everyone is comic relief). When he gets kidnapped you begin to anticipate a ransom movie. But then you’re introduced to his captures and you immediately think “oh, it’s trying to be THAT kind of movie.” Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m actually glad it wasn’t a generic ransom. But it came at the cost of some key character development for Whitlock.
Aside from Hobie, the other characters do not get enough screen time to develop. Hobie is shown struggling to transition into the drama genre. He is world famous for his westerns, and it is basically the only thing he’s got going for him. He, I would say, goes through the most amount of changes. The question I’ve been trying to answer is, why? His importance becomes very apparent near the end, but the changes he went through did not directly contribute to the outcome. So it is difficult to see the relevance of his development, and it might explain why the Coens chose to let Whitlock remain static. No need.
There is much more about the narrative that is worth pointing out (philosophy, ideology, Palestine! more parody, plot holes etc.) I will say one more thing before I proceed. The kidnapping scene felt a lot like a cliché thing you would see in a made for TV movie, where it is exaggerated and animated. Anyway, time to move on to the performances. Scarlett Johansson impressed with her vocal range. As soon as she opened her mouth I thought “she must have been coached,” and later thought “give that coach a raise.” She sounded like she was from that era, and what little screen time she had, she nailed it. Jonah Hill, with his even smaller segment, also managed to be funny. Too bad the trailer spoils his entire scene. Tatum already knows how to sing and dance (he did that small indie flick about a magical male stripper named Michael). If the musical number was all done in one take, it would be all the more impressive. The most impressive performance, however, was that of Josh Brolin. While he was great in Sicario, and average in Everest, he really showed how far his range can reach. He was funny and silly, but also dark and mysterious, and I was totally confounded and I loved every bit of it. Oh yeah, It’s been 27 hours since I’ve seen the film!
Alright, so it’s a film about films being filmed by actors playing actors who play characters. Confused? No? Well, it’s not that complex actually. But oh how massive is the potential for the meta-narrative? Or, more generally, the meta- anything. There are scenes showing the fictional movie stage, with the directors manning cameras that are actually filming! So in post-production, the editor would take the footage of the actual film, cut it with the footage filmed by the fictional equipment, and it would transition beautifully. This does so many things all at once. One is that it shows the performances of the actors from the director’s perspective while simultaneously showing the fictional audience’s perspective. But at the same time, the view of the fictional audience, is also the view of the real audience too! So you occasionally wonder, which camera is shooting this footage, the fictional or real? Are we seeing the clip as the audience would, or as we would? A specific example is Tatum’s dance sequence. We are shown all the close-up shots you would see in a normal movie scene. But it’s in full color, rather than black and white. So you wonder, are the Coens showing us Tatum’s story, or are we seeing Burt’s movie? If it’s Tatum’s story, then why are we shown the full on professional choreography? It’s not relevant to the plot. But if we’re shown the director watching an uncut reel, full camera work and all, in black and white, then it would make more sense.
This is in contrast to Hobie’s reels, which are filmed by the Coens in full color and shown from wide angles. But when viewing the perceptive of the characters, it is in black and white, with all the unique camera angles which go with it. Had they filmed those scenes in full color, it would have added to the confusion.
Other points of praise regard the incredible attention to detail, and the superb continuity. Each scene is precisely set up to include the necessary props and elements, some being more noticeable than others. The comedy is fresh in many ways, and while it may not be as funny as many would have you believe, there are definite HAHA moments in it. And finally, the thing I probably appreciate the most in films, the writing. The script is very articulate and fluid. Each word is necessary, and each line is engaging. I can only think of a few moments where I felt like the movie needs to pick up before I start becoming drowsy. Thankfully it did. Regarding the ending, all I have to say is, umm, I disagree with it.
I appreciated the latest installment from the Coens and I thank them for kicking off our first real 2016 film review with a quality production. Despite some key consistency issues with narrative and tone, I thoroughly enjoyed Hail, Caesar! and grant it a grade of B (7.8/10).