I Come To Bury “Caesar,” Not To Praise It
By Johnny Pomatto
There are few auteurs whose films I look forward to more than Joel and Ethan Coen. After decades of making some of the greatest films of their generation, they have yet to make a film that I haven’t found at least some value in. Perhaps the worst Coen film, in my opinion, would be their unnecessary 2004 remake of “The Ladykillers,” and even that I saw theatrically more than once and can recount more than a few amusing moments in it. The brothers have always seemed more at home when making darker, modest curiosities, as opposed to their more star-filled, larger budget films, which have a more likelihood to disappoint, such as “Burn After Reading” or “Intolerable Cruelty.” So I’ll admit that I was somewhat on guard when sitting down to watch the Coens’ star-studded, epic Hollywood satire HAIL CAESAR!, though as always, I was hoping for the best.
HAIL CAESAR! shows us a day in the life of real life MGM executive and legendary Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, played by an amusingly straight-laced Josh Brolin. Over the course of about 24 hours, Mannix deals with the pregnancy of a leading lady, the rebranding of a young western actor to romantic leading man, seeking approval from religious leaders of a Biblical epic, and a communist led kidnapping plot of one of the studio’s biggest stars, all without breaking a sweat. This is a case of a movie simultaneously having too much plot and not enough, with all these threads getting shaved down to vignettes, some amusing, some tedious. The Coen’s love screwball comedies and this is not the first time they’ve tried to make one of their own, but when it comes to the quintessential comedies of directors like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, if you remove one scene or character from their scripts, then the whole story will come crumbling down around it. That is not the case with HAIL CAESAR!
HAIL CAESAR! is most successful in five minute increments. Channing Tatum performs an impressive song and dance number that would be right at home in a Gene Kelly movie. Brolin manipulates identical twin gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton. Frances McDormandt gets laughs just by running a film projector while a cigarette hangs out of her mouth. Best of all, Ralph Fiennes as a genteel director tries to delicately give a line reading to cowboy turned leading man Alden Ehrenreich, (the least famous face in the cast who ends up giving its most memorable performance). These moments are often hilarious little sketches, but they ultimately add up to nothing. They have no real influence on the film’s story, or lack there of. It’s impossible for me to comprehend that the Coen Brothers couldn’t find one of Mannix’s real life exploits that was more outrageous and compelling than the fictional fodder they come up with here.
The primary conflict in HAIL CAESAR! involves George Clooney, (playing a dim bulb actor not too far removed from the likes of Kirk Douglas), getting kidnapped by a group of communist writers and held for ransom. The stakes remain pretty low, as Clooney’s character simply spends the afternoon buddying up to his captors and pretending to understand their political rhetoric. Any attempts at satire are lost in fleeting jokes, such as when, having been asked not to identify his abductors to the authorities, Clooney responds with “Don’t worry. I’m not going to name names.” The writers all gasp at the phrase, but before this punch line is even allowed to register as commentary on anything we’ve moved on to another scene featuring another A-list celebrity anxious to be a part of a Coen Brothers film. Clooney is collaborating with the Coen’s for the fourth time now, and he’s someone who also seems desperate to revive the style and sensibilities of the screwball comedy, but for all his undeniable charm, Clooney doesn’t have the natural instincts to effortlessly channel Clark Cable or Cary Grant, as has been demonstrated in films like “O Brothers, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” and “Leatherheads.” He can capture the sincerity that Grant exhibited in his more serious roles, but he has a real hard time getting silly without it feeling forced. This problem persists with several other cast members, who never feel like they’re doing more than extended cameos. Perhaps they feel more like cameos than characters because there’s too many of them competing for screen time. At 104 minutes, that’s hardly enough time to stuff in stories for a dozen or more characters. There are so many famous faces in this movie but many of them don’t justify their presence. Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill have such little screen time I wonder why their subplots were included at all. When a third act plot twist reveals something sinister about one of the protagonists, it feels like it’s just a twist for the actor to play, and not a development for the character himself, because we’ve never actually learned much about who the character is to begin with.
For all its many faults, HAIL CAESAR! still manages to be frequently entertaining just because of its high energy, even when very little is actually happening. As we’ve come to expect from the Coen Brothers, the film looks gorgeous, aided by Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography. If the Coen Brothers were a little less prolific and made us wait longer between efforts, I might be less forgiving of this amusing at best trifle. A second viewing of HAIL CAESAR! might result in me liking it more, or possibly less. I hope that the Brothers Coen didn’t waste their chance of a return to the Hollywood satire on this. They are said to have a script in a drawer for a sequel to “Barton Fink” entitled “Old Fink” that also deals with the Hollywood Blacklist. It’s worth noting that HAIL CAESAR! has also been sitting in a drawer for many years and has been touted as “their next film” on more than one occasion. Perhaps it should have stayed shut away. The Coen’s don’t usually let a mediocre entry slow them down too much, so hopefully we’ll have a better film from them within a few years. I hope they don’t continue down the Woody Allen path, becoming joyless directors who make films seemingly to appease the celebrities desperate to work with them. The Coen’s are auteurs who seem to prefer the process of making a film to the awards and ardor awaiting them upon its completion. But for the first time in a long time, I feel like they had a lot more fun making this one than I had watching it.