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When Good Films Aren't Great: The Curse of Hail Caesar!


We tend to expect greatness from directors with a certain degree of prestige. To the point that when they don’t deliver greatness we can be as disappointed as if we’d seen a bad film. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo for example are decent films, but they feel very underwhelming when compared to masterpieces like 2001 or Spirited Away. And this is pretty much the case for the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail Caesar!
Set in 1950’s Hollywood the film follows a fictionalized version of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a production head and “fixer” for Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest project, a Biblical epic called Hail Caesar! is threatened when its star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as “The Future”, and Mannix has to find him while preventing the kidnapping from getting out. At the same time he has to contend with a hapless rising Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being forced by the studio into a Broadway drama film to the irritation of its revered director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); as well as the unexpected pregnancy of diver turned actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). 
The plot of this film is a little unfocussed as we jump from one story to another. While a couple interconnect, others are clumsier, being introduced and then just sort of stopping without a resolution. The only thread is that Mannix is in some way connected to each of them. The Coens have given us these kind of fragmented storylines before most notably in The Big Lebowski. But what made The Big Lebowski work better was the larger than life characters.
The characters in this film aren’t bad, they’re just a little uninspired. Though all the performances are good, half the cast are recalling figures of the time. Johansson is modelling her performance on real-life diver-turned-actress Esther Williams while Channing Tatum in his sailor get-up and song and dance sequence is clearly channelling Gene Kelly. Even Fiennes seems to be doing a vague Laurence Olivier impression but is still really funny. Ehrenreich is very good, a much better up-and-coming star than his character, and Clooney with his classic movie star looks is perfect as Whitlock who’s sort of a send-up of stars like Richard Burton or Kirk Douglas. The character who should be keeping our attention though is Mannix and Brolin gives it his best, but he just doesn’t connect as well as he should. Though he does have some really great moments. The film also features some great minor performances from Wayne Knight, Robert Picardo, Clancy Brown, and narrator Michael Gambon, but there are also some misfires. I didn’t really think the gimmick of Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists worked all that well. Also Jonah Hill and Coen staple Frances McDormand were sadly wasted. 
This movie though succeeds as a really good love letter to old Hollywood. Much like Barton Fink it excels in its attention to detail, both in the production aspects as well as studio politics. The film within a film Hail Caesar! is an obvious allusion to Ben-Hur right down to the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ” but it really captures the scope, grand speeches and acting style of the old epics. This is true of all the sets we visit and stories we’re presented, and for that I can’t say I didn’t enjoy them. Especially considering the reveal of who kidnapped Whitlock and why is pretty weak; and with it taking place far away from the studio lot, quickly makes it the least enjoyable story.
Hail Caesar! has a lot of the trappings of the great Coen Brothers films. The writing is great. Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Carter Burwell’s music is good as usual, and it has some enjoyable performances and great jokes. But it is unfocussed, and suffers from a few poor decisions and unmemorable characters. That said, it’s not bad. If you’re a fan of classic Hollywood like me, you’ll enjoy it for being a superb tribute. Just don’t expect it to be Fargo.

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