If you know me at all, you know that I absolutely adore the Coen Brothers. A disproportionate amount of their filmography ranks as some of my favorite films ever made, and almost none of their films rank as low as mediocre in my book. So needless to say, I go into a new Coens film with high hopes and a bit of a bias in favor of loving it. That said, even I have to walk away from Hail, Caesar! and admit that it is not the Coens’ best work. It is far from their worst though, and that is head and shoulders above many modern filmmakers. Furthermore, I think I might understand why this film doesn’t quite reach the usual Coen heights.
Plotwise, the film plays like a greatest hits of Coen-esque tropes and thematic fetishes. Set in mid-20th century Hollywood (see Barton Fink), Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works as a “fixer,” making sure that Capitol Studios’ stars retain a clean public image and doing the dirty work to ensure that happens. He is suffering a crisis of faith (see A Serious Man) that leaves him wondering if he wants to continue this line of work. However, when star actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped (see Fargo, The Big Lebowski), Eddie must hunt down the parties responsible and bring Baird back to the set. Along the way, Eddie must also deal with a number of other star problems with an eclectic cast of cameos (see The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?) despite a seeming nihilistic futility to Eddie’s actions (see every Coen Brothers film ever).
This is probably the most absurd film that the Coens have directed since The Hudsucker Proxy, with moments of their trademark bizarre banter juxtaposed with seemingly straight-faced renditions of classical Hollywood stagework, only to have those scenes end in anti-climax without fail. It’s a film that is effortlessly funny when it is trying to be, and the Coens know how to use the star power at their disposal to amazingly effective degrees. One moment you will be watching Channing Tatum tap dance his way through an unsubtly gay musical interlude titled “No Dames,” and the next you’ll be witnessing the spectacle of Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists who can’t help but protest at how different they are. They even go so far as using rear projection and mat paintings for backgrounds of key scenes, and the amount of work that went into the production of the stage design and choreography is frankly shocking considering this isn’t a musical, nor primarily filmed on sets. It’s ridiculous spectacle to say the least, and it is more often than not riotously funny.
But the connective tissue of these moments feels somewhat lacking, as the film often cuts us away from Eddie to follow a character for no real reason other than to show us something amusing that doesn’t ever tie back to the overarching plot. The film does attempt to tie its disparate threads in the final moments of an explanatory conversation, but it feels like a weak excuse for what is ultimately a series of disconnected episodes. And that’s precisely what I think the Coens did here; they had a series of comic situations that they wanted to put to film and they did so by emulating the various styles and trappings of classic Hollywood without worrying about an inventive narrative to string it together.
The result is a film that doesn’t really have the thematic depth or lasting memorability that many of the Coens’ other films have had throughout the years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate Hail, Caesar! for what it is. It’s an excuse for the Coens to have a little bit of fun with their craft and pay homage to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood while acknowledging the darker aspects of its history at Hollywood’s comic expense. I consistently laughed quite hard, and that alone made it worth the price of admission. And, quite frankly, that’s enough for me to offer a solid recommendation.