We often expect too much of the Coen bothers because we know they are capable of greatness. In the pantheon of their films — there have been 17 in all — most agree that some combination of “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “The Big Lebowski” and “True Grit” are, in one way or another, examples of the pinnacle of film making. And while that count amounts to nearly one-third of the Coen’s output (an enviable percentage for which any director would kill), focusing too much on those six films overlooks the fact that far more of the brothers’ filmography falls into the “Hudsucker Proxy”/“Barton Fink”/“Inside Llwelyn Davis” category — films that are thoroughly enjoyable in their own right but will never make anyone’s list of favorite films of all time. But we’ve seen that greatness, which is why every time we see a new Coen brothers film hit the theaters, we go in expecting “Fargo,” even though the result is much more likely to be “Intolerable Cruelty.”
“Hail, Caesar!” is a perfectly acceptable film. Set in the 1950s, it follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer for Capital Pictures. Brolin’s job is to put out the studio’s public relations fires, including arranging love affairs between stars, hiding out-of-wedlock pregnancies and paying off cops to look the other way when the studio’s stars misbehave.
The film bounces between the sets of several of Capital’s films, introducing us to characters like DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an aquatic film star with an out-of-wedlock child on the way; Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star of cowboy westerns whom the studio is attempting to push into more serious roles; Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a singing, dancing, Fred Astaire type with a hidden secret, and Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the biggest star in Hollywood and lead of the studio’s tentpole release of the year, “Hail Caesar.”
When unnamed scoundrels kidnap Whitlock from the studio lot and demand $100,000 for his return, it falls to Mannix to round up the money and secure the safe return of his star, all while keeping the kidnapping off the radar of twin gossip reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played with over-the-top delight by Tilda Swinton), and simultaneously dealing with the studio’s day-to-day problems as well.
The film had the chance to be a fast-paced farce with plenty of opportunity for laughs, but the Coens never seem to settle on a particular direction. Instead, the film suffers from having so many high profile actors in roles that never interact with one another, forcing the action to stop and start as the film shifts focus. Also, while the Coens are known for their exacting dialogue and attention to detail, their writing has never been famous for being particularly snappy, and none of the scenes has the fire or pacing required to keep everything moving at the pace the film feels like it really needs.
If you are a fan of the studio era of film making, or if you have spent any time on an actual film set, there will be enough here in the way of in-jokes and homages to provide some fun moments. Clooney, Tatum and Swinton are all great in roles that are far too small, and the set pieces are beautiful. But, ultimately, “Hail Caesar” is not “Fargo.” It is, instead, another in a long line of perfectly acceptable films from brothers who have given us a perfectly acceptable filmography. CV