Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a put-upon movie producer for Capitol Pictures in 1951. Over the course of one 27-hour period he must deal with rival gossip columnist twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), a rising western star (Alden Ehrenreich) being reimagined as a dramatic actor, much to the chagrin of his new director (Ralph Fiennes), the unexpected pregnancy of a swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson), offers for Mannix himself to change to a high powered position in another company, as well as the supposed kidnapping of major star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a Communist cell calling themselves “The Future” and the fall-out from Whitlock’s disappearance, which is delaying the production of a lavish epic.
Sometimes I think I should stick to my initial gut feeling. When the first trailer for Hail, Caesar! dropped I had my doubts. It looked entertaining, but too lightweight and incoherent, in a manner reminiscent of some of the Coens’ lesser works, like Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers. Then the second trailer was released, the one predominantly focusing on the characters played by Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, and I was so smitten by the scene these two shared that I lost all my doubts in favour of being really excited to see the movie. Now, alas, it seems my early apprehension was the correct way to go, because this was something of a disappointment. It’s not entirely a bad film, in fact there are many watchable and entertaining aspects, it’s just that overall it’s a bit of a jumbled mess, and the trailers promised a great deal more than was actually received.
If you watch the trailers, or indeed read the names above the title on the DVD cover, you’ll see appearances from the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton all featuring prominently. In reality, most of the scenes these actors are in are shown almost in their entirety in the trailers. Hill and McDormand in particular are barely in the film and whilst I’m fine with that being the case for Hill, McDormand deserves far better than a bizarre and unfunny cameo as a projectionist. Johansson, Tatum and Swinton are featured a little more, even going so far as to impact the overall plot, but to say they star in this film, or even co-star, would be a huge exaggeration. No, the focal points are primarily Josh Brolin and George Clooney, with Alden Ehrenreich in third place, and they’re all fine, it’s just not what I’d signed up for. You see, in my opinion the trailers were setting up the plot in which Clooney’s Baird Whitlock gets captured, and Brolin’s Eddie Mannix assembles an all-star Hollywood team of director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) and actors Hobie Doyle, DeeAnne Moran and Burt Gurney (Ehrenreich, Johansson and Tatum) to pull off some kind of con to bring Whitlock back, which would somehow involve Moran having to seduce Jonah Hill’s desk-bound clerk. In reality all these stars and cameos are for the most part mere distractions and obstacles to add to Brolin’s day.
This isn’t the first Coen brothers movie in which very little has changed for the main characters between the opening frame and the last. Sure they might have learned something, and serious developments may have occurred for some of the supporting cast, but for the leads there’s as much change in this as is experienced by the Dude in The Big Lebowski, Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man or Llewyn Davis in whatever film he was inside. And just as with those films, this isn’t an issue I have with Hail, Caesar!. It’s a little frustrating at the end of the first viewing to know that almost everything I just watched was inevitably all for nought, but I feel repeat viewings will increase my enjoyment, in a similar way to those other Coen movies. They tend to get better over time, with each viewing revealing further details and insights that I’d missed the first time around, but alas I’m reviewing this based on just one sight, and any future opinions will have to wait until later, when I’ve had them.
So what of those enjoyable aspects I mentioned earlier? Well, within Hail, Caesar! there are several other films-within-a-film being made, and it is within these that most of the joy can be found. In particular, Merrily We Dance is a studio-shot drawing room romantic drama being directed by Fiennes’ Laurentz, who has western star Doyle thrust upon him by the studio, leading to the “Would that it were so simple” scene I watched dozens of times in the trailer. Ehrenreich is fantastic as Doyle here, completely nailing the cowboy drawl trying to be more sophisticated and utterly failing. Watching this guy, who I’ve not noticed in anything else before, is mesmerising. He has so much to do here, vocally, physically, expression-wise, mimicking Fiennes’ refined delivery but being terrible the whole way through, and I can’t wait to seek that scene out again. Even his fumbling with the door, and his positioning on the divan are spot on. And the mirthless chortle!
Similarly Tatum’s Burt Gurney is an all-singing all-dancing musical man tapping and leaping his way through a big musical number about the lack of women he and his fellow sailors will see during the next 8 months at sea. It’s a comically ludicrous number becoming progressively, and farcically, more homosexual as the number progresses (“I’ll see a lot of you and you’ll see a LOT o’ me!”, culminating in Tatum with an upside down man’s arse in his face, before being sandwiched between two dancing bottoms as he tries to exit the establishment within which the dance is occurring. This is most definitely a film that will be better appreciated by those with a greater knowledge of classic cinema, something I can’t quite consider myself to possess (whilst I know Johansson is playing an Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming star, I’ve yet to see any of Williams’ work, the same goes for many of the mega-budget biblical epics or the Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio).
All in all, this is a film drastically betrayed by its own marketing. Not only have cameos been oversold, but also many of the better punchlines, even those from the very last few moments of the film, have been given away in the very first trailer. And it’s not just the bigger, widely publicised names that have been wasted to. Others, like Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler and Wayne Knight all become lost in a sea of underused acting talent. One good point though, John Bluthal, probably best known to UK audiences as Frank Pickle in The Vicar of Dibley, gets a prominent role amongst Clooney’s kidnappers, meaning there’s a scene where Bluthal has a conversation with George Clooney which, had you asked me to write down a list of things I’d probably never see, there’s a chance that would have been on there, so well done everyone for that.
Choose Life 6/10