Hail, Caesar!: A Lesser Coen Effort
Full disclosure: I’m a Coen Brothers fanboy. The way that they’ve been able to carve out their niche of making quirky, atypical movies within the Hollywood system is pretty impressive, whether you’re a fan of their movies or not. Like with a few other directors (Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan, Fincher), I’m always interested to see what the Coen Brothers are doing and I’ll go see their movie, reviews be damned. Most Coen Brothers movies get pretty good reviews, including this one. However, I wasn’t in love with the trailer and I heard a couple of bad reports about Hail, Caesar! from a few movie lovers/critics that I trust and admire. I went in to this one with lowered expectations. So, what’s the verdict? Is Hail, Caesar! worth your time and attention? Well, that depends.
The “pros and cons” format has served me well thus far in my movie reviews, so I’ll use that format to discuss the Coen’s latest effort as well. First, the pros.
- The humor. As I mentioned, I was underwhelmed by the trailer for this movie. The jokes fell flat and it just looked too goofy. I’ve been a Coen fan long enough; I should have known better. The Coen Brothers’ humor isn’t really about jokes or punchlines. The humor is found in the absurdity of the characters and situations. Hail, Caesar! plays well to this type of humor. There are two scenes in particular that I remember causing me to laugh pretty hard. I won’t ruin them for you if you haven’t seen the movie. If you have, the first is the scene in which Ralph Fiennes is trying to direct the cowboy actor, and the second is the Channing Tatum musical number. It’s not their funniest movie (ahem, The Big Lebowski), but it might be their most absurd and manic film to date.
- The direction/cinematography. One element that’s always strong in a Coen movie is the directing. The Coens have been doing it since the 80s and have never turned in a movie that was poorly directed, no matter the overall quality of the film. The shots are always dynamic and interesting and the Coens are masters at getting what they want from their actors. Hail, Caesar! is no different in this regard. It’s nothing special by Coen standards, but compared with present Hollywood trends, it’s genius.
- The acting. Josh Brolin, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, and Scarlett Johansson are all veteran Coen collaborators, and they all give excellent performances. I continue to be impressed with Channing Tatum, as well. He has a somewhat small part in this movie, but he steals the show in his musical number (that I mentioned above). The most credit is due Josh Brolin, however. He carries this movie. He’s the straight man fixing all the absurd situations that arise in the film and if his character didn’t work, the movie wouldn’t work. Kudos.
- The costumes/set design. This is a period piece, and all the costumes, sets, and props scream Old Hollywood. If you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, you’ll get lots of joy from the look of this movie.
While I basically enjoyed Hail, Caesar!, it ranks pretty low on my list of favorite Coen movies. (I’ll have to do a rankings post someday.) It has a lot of problems, and off the top of my head, here are a couple. They’re not enough to spoil the movie, but they bother me.
- The Structure/Plot. Hail, Caesar!‘s plot is a bit messy and bit hard to follow. Now, I understand that there’s supposed to be a lot going on; Brolin’s job is to fix the many, many problems the spring up on a daily basis. However, it’s a bit too much. There were quite a few subplots that I was very interested in seeing fleshed out that weren’t because of time constraints. Also, the major plot line is a bit lightweight. This is not the first time the Coens have had a light plot; think The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, or Burn After Reading. However, I think it was more of a problem here because the characters and jokes weren’t as strongly written to make up for it.
- Too Many Useless Characters. The Coens excel at creating quirky, bizarre characters, but there are too many in this movie. Too many of them are unnecessary, as well. The Mexican actress is underused, as is Jonah Hill’s character and the two kidnappers. Tilda Swinton plays twins, and it doesn’t work. It’s a bit confusing because the audience doesn’t know which twin she’s supposed to be. Brolin’s wife didn’t need to be in the movie, and neither did the actress in the opening scene. She never returned.
Final verdict: Hail, Caesar! is by no means a bad movie, and I rather enjoyed much of it. By the ridiculously high standards put in place by their earlier efforts, I’m calling it a “lesser effort.” It’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers, quirky comedies, and/or old Hollywood. However, the casual moviegoer may not appreciate it.
Story: ★★½ of 5
Cinematography: ★★★★★ of 5
Directing/Editing: ★★★★★ of 5
Acting: ★★★★ of 5
Overall: ★★★ of 5
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