Saturday, February 20, 2016

Thumbs down!: The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney in Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, may be their most lacklustre film to date. The story, set in 1951, revolves around the goings-on when movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped and harried studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to retrieve him before the plug has to be pulled on the studio's expensive Biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!: The Story of the Christ, which stars Whitlock. Hail, Caesar! has a lot of potential as a screwball comedy, skewering as it does everything from self-centered actors to pretentious directors to the leftist politics of the time but the movie is pretty much dead on arrival. The actors are bored and mostly boring, the set pieces, made up fake movies of various genres, musicals, high comedies, Westerns etc., are flat and unimaginative, and the whole production barely makes a comedic ripple. Remember how disinterested and indifferent the Coens were when they won the Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men? Imagine a movie made with that same spirit of ennui and you have Hail, Caesar! in a nutshell.

I am not actually sure what the Coens actually think of Hollywood of yore, but their love letter to the medium and its repository is pretty tepid stuff. They’re not filmmakers who actually are in love with moviemaking so much as they’re filmmakers who make movies. There’s a difference and their overall lack of passion has brought us any number of films redolent with contempt for their characters, and by extension the audience, movies such as Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and A Serious Man. There have also been outright failures like The Huduscker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading and a few ambitious, intelligent flicks, No Country For Old Men, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, that just didn’t gel at all. In between, they’ve given us only a few good films, ones that display an affectionate and humane world view, notably Raising Arizona, The Ladykillers and, of course The Big Lebowski, likely, and deservedly, their most beloved film. But the Coens' films, whatever their myriad flaws, usually had, some grit or edge, even when they were bad.(The duo are talented, after all, which makes their inconsistency all the more frustrating.) The sleepy Hail, Caesar! does not, fortunately, display their trademark contempt, but it doesn’t also possess any personality at all. Its political worldview isn’t very sophisticated, either, offering up an oddly benign take on the then pernicious and real communist influences in Hollywood. (They seem to admit it exists but it’s no big deal to them.) And their approach to religious leaders and their complex relationship to the moviemakers isn’t much better in its execution; a scene whereby the representatives of all the major religions and denominations in the U.S. are solicited for their take on the Hail, Caesar! movie isn’t nearly as sharp or cutting as it ought to have been.

That leaves the actors carrying the load and they don’t generally come out too well in the process. Some of them Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand have what amounts to glorified and forgettable cameos, even though their names are on the film’s poster, leaving us expecting more from them on screen. Others – like Brolin, who's actually playing a real person, Channing Tatum as a politically-minded leading man and Ralph Fiennes as a put upon director really aren’t given anything meaty to chew on. And some of the performances, particularly that of Tilda Swinton in (an unnecessary) dual role as two feuding gossip writing sisters, are merely dreadful.

Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar!

That brings us to George Clooney. He’s indicated his attraction to starring in the Coens’ films, including O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, because they never make him look too glamourous on screen. True enough but there was nothing wrong with his movie star aura, which he successfully brought to such films Ocean’s Eleven and Out of Sight. The Coens simply make George Clooney look washed out and unattractive without offering him decent roles to play in the process. Baird Whitlock, his movie star in Hail, Caesar!, is a dim character who doesn’t seem talented enough to play leading roles, which is not what I think the Coens meant to convey here. It’s quite an underwhelming part, but par for the course in his Coen film roles, even if Clooney thinks otherwise.

The only actors who come out looking good in the movie are Scarlett Johansson, who makes something tangible out of her small part as ‘not so innocent’ leading lady DeAnna Moran, who is now pregnant – paternity uncertain – leaving Mannix in a fix as he needs to explain away her single status and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an aw-shucks cowboy star suddenly thrust into a leading man role in a sophisticated comedy of manners. As Hobie, a naïf, who is not used to uttering more than a few monosyllabic words on screen but also has a keen detective’s eye off screen, thus becoming involved in the ransom demand for Whitlock, Ehrenreich stands out. He aces his scenes with Fiennes, with the latter as director Laurence Laurentz who is desperately trying to coax a (dialogue laden) performance out of him, though, again, those moments aren't as rollicking as they ought to have been. Yet, the Coens – who write, produce and edit their films – don’t take their protagonist in any interesting direction.(Add Ehrenriech’s fine role as Cate Blanchett’s stepson in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and you have an up-and-coming actor to watch out for.)

I didn’t expect the Coens to reach for the high bar of a brilliant Hollywood set movie like the immortal Singin’ in the Rain – although they could at least have tried – but Hail, Caesar! even compares unfavourably to earlier films of theirs like Barton Fink, also set in Hollywood, ten years earlier, at the same fictitious studio, Capitol Pictures, that Mannix represents here. Barton Fink was vile in so many ways, rife with stereotypical Jewish characters and possessing a nasty undertone, but it occasionally got at something significant about how Hollywood works and why it entices the creative types it does into its environs. By comparison, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t seem to have anything particular on its mind, though the arch narration (a running but flat commentary through the movie) provided by Michal Gambon suggests the Coens are attempting a parable here about Mannix’s genuine love of what he does versus the impersonal corporate entity, Lockheed Corporation, which wants to subsume him into its capitalist ethos. No doubt, some will discern Mannix to be the honest representative of the arts and Lockheed as the stand-in for the crass business types wanting to control him  – or them, if Mannix is meant to stand in for the Coens themselves. But since the Coens have fashioned a movie as impersonal and devoid of character as anything coming off the assembly line, that comparison simply doesn’t stick. There’s nothing memorable here.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on genre cinema.

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