Even average Coen Brothers’ films have a bit of merit.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ attempt to satirize the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the only thing that the film really satirizes is itself.
Let me say that there is more style and substance in the previews for Hail, Caesar! than the film itself. Despite the Coen Brothers’ great history that has brought us sterling films ranging from Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007), it is clear that they have hit a dry spell when you consider that their last major release was the overrated Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Have our boys been reduced to having their movies released with the lackluster films hitting the theater in late January and early February?
Despite a bevy of wonderful actors, Hail, Caesar! is a disjointed mess. It has a disconnected plot that leaves you with an uneven story line. You are repeatedly left wondering where this film was heading.
As you saw in the previews, George Clooney plays a largely brainless Hollywood icon known as Baird Whitlock. Starring in a film that will remind you of Ben Hur (1959), he is kidnapped by a group that is seeking a ransom. Quite frankly, this may be the first kidnapping on film that becomes both boring and uninteresting.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the studio fixer with religious principles who tries to insure that movies are made with one goal, namely a sizable profit. In the meantime, he has to continually shepherd well known actors and actresses to keep their embarrassing personal lives from ruining their careers.
Nearly everyone else in this movie is relegated to very brief performances, and that includes Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johannsen, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Tilda Swinton. Of that group, the only major contributions come from Ms. Swinton, playing amoral sisters who are Hollywood gossip columnists, and Mr. Tatum, who is in a splendid musical scene where he seems to be bringing Gene Kelly back to life.
The only genuinely laugh-out-loud moment in the movie comes from a very brief appearance by Frances McDormand. Playing a film editor who is trying to splice a new film together for Mr. Brolin’s viewing, she gets her scarf caught in a projector that produces an hysterical reaction with the audience. You were left wishing that she was in more of the film.
Oddly, the most surprising performances comes from Alden Ehrenreich. Here, he plays an actor who has made a reputation as a singing cowboy, and it is enjoyable to watch his southern drawl drive Mr. Fiennes crazy as he tries to play a cosmopolitan New York playboy.
As with Woody Allen, critics from the Northeast routinely praise the Coen Brothers’ movies. Two years ago, the New York Times even argued for Oscar nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis. Now their chief critic, A.O. Scott, praised Hail, Caesar! in a long review.
I remain a big fan of the Art Section of the New York Times, and that includes the knowledge and skill of Mr. Scott. However, he and others need to take a harder look at the works of certain directors before continually gushing over their most recent films.
Great directors don’t always release great films, and that certainly applies to Hail, Caesar!