Sunday, February 7, 2016
Review: HAIL, CAESAR!
I do not own the above image. Copyright Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
If your favorite artist - be it a filmmaker, musician, sculptor, painter, actor, whoever - makes something that is terrible, are you able & willing to admit it? Joel Coen & Ethan Coen have made some of the best movies of the past three decades. FARGO is marvelous, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is 90% of a masterpiece and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS leaves me speechless still. HAIL, CAESAR! was primed to get those descriptions as well with Deakins behind the camera, Clooney, Johansson & Brolin in front of it and Roderick Jaynes in the editing room. Instead, HAIL, CAESAR! is being described as if it were a Brett Ratner movie.
Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the head of production of Capitol Pictures in the early 1950’s. He’s not having a good day. His star, Baird Whitlock, has disappeared from the set of the titular Roman epic. DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) can barely fit into her mermaid costume because she is pregnant out of wedlock. Hobie Doyle’s (Ehrenreich) transition into a mainstream movie star under the wing of Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) is not going so well. Then there are Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Swinton & Swinton), twins & rival columnists looking for the latest scoop or juicy rumor. At the same time, he gets an unbelievable offer to become the CEO of the Lockheed Corporation.
It becomes quite clear quite early that the movie does not have a solid center to pivot from one storyline to another. Mannix’s decision about his future quickly becomes the center of the film and that inner conflict needed more attention. HAIL, CAESAR! spends most of the time following Mannix as he runs around Southern California like a chicken with his head cut off. Meetings with writers, directors, the Thacker twins, a clutzy editor, lawyers, a priest, you name it, Mannix met them. Just looking at the schedule of a studio head makes one exhausted but not enough time was used to show just how stressed out he is from the shenanigans of his stars, despite Brolin’s best efforts. The only scenes that slightly work are where Mannix has to talk down the threats of the dueling Thackers. Tilda Swinton
Instead, the Coens focus on the stars themselves in a sort of commentary about how celebrity culture hasn’t changed over the years. This would make for an interesting movie if only those subplots worked. At all. As it turns out, Whitlock has been kidnapped by Communists but the Coens use the old “character misunderstanding the situation” to make Whitlock look like a bigger idiot than he probably is. In addition, the Communist subplot ends in amusing fashion but by that time, you’ve already checked out of the movie.
The DeeAnna Moran storyline is given so little attention, I ponder why Johansson took the role to begin with, beyond the allure of working with the four-time Oscar winners. As far as I can remember, she’s in two scenes, one of which being that scene you see repeatedly in the marketing with Jonah Hill, which is his only scene, before the subplot is wrapped up while the lead sleeps. What a waste!
Hobie Doyle has a tough time with complex dialogue as shown by an endless (at least it felt that way) scene where Laurentz tries to get Doyle to say a 6 word line to his liking. I don’t know if this was the purpose but Fiennes acts circles around young Ehrenreich. Doyle’s story also includes a tiny premiere of one of his B-movie Westerns and his date with a Latina actress stereotype, which goes nowhere until it intersects with another of the celeb subplots.
When the stars are making their movies, HAIL, CAESAR! shines. The re-creation of an aquatic dance sequence featuring Johansson as a mermaid in the first 10 minutes is simply gorgeous. Another recreation is a musical sequence featuring Channing Tatum as a sailor about to ship off is also very entertaining.
But these two scenes are not enough to keep the movie afloat. Even on a technical level, HAIL, CAESAR! fails miserably. The movie looks as if the Brothers Coen didn’t care. It has this modern filmmaking feel to it and doesn’t work with the time period not the setting at all. Deakins’ cinematography is so lazy & uninspiring that it wouldn’t shock me if he gave out instructions to his assistant over the phone while working on another project.
When the credits started rolling, I sat there is disbelief. The first credit read “Written, Produced & Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen” and I didn’t believe it. Never in a million years would I have expected to have been so thoroughly bored & enraged by a movie they created. The acting is decent but the writing is painfully unfunny and, apart from the vintage Hollywood set pieces, the general look is uninspiring. On paper, this should have been that February “diamond in the rough” movie. In reality, it’s prestigious dog shit.