What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Hail, Caesar! Middling Coen Brothers is Better Than Most Others' Best

Posted February 5, 2016

— Upon watching Hail, Caesar!, the latest addition to the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, I realized that the brothers have now entered a point in their career where they are basically damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Oh, you guys made another film that will be touted as a sure awards getter, and will go down as one of the indelible movies to be made in its given decade? Yawn! Been there, done that.

Wait a sec, now you’ve made a fun, if a little slight, comedy that seems a misfire at first, but that I will probably watch a dozen times over the next couple of years until I have memorized multiple lines of dialogue that I will repeat ad nauseam around friends and family for the rest of my life? Well now, let’s go ahead and say this is the worst thing you’ve ever produced and start the think pieces on where it all went wrong for the once great Coens.

With Caesar!, the duo envision a day in the life of a Hollywood studio circa 1950, headed up by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), curiously a real-life former executive at MGM best known as being a studio “enforcer”. Mannix was the guy that could be counted on to “lean” on certain undesirables to get them out of the lives of his stars, or to silence any gossip that may put a blemish on the otherwise lily white public appearances of said actors.

While Mannix may be based on a real person, all of the other characters are fictional. We have Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, playing yet another buffoon for the Coens), the biggest star in Hollywood, hear taking on the role of a Roman commander in a sword-and-sandal retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, who is kidnapped from set by a group that dub themselves “The Future.” An Esther Williams-like actress (Scarlet Johansson) is finding it more difficult to hide her swelling belly as she stars in water ballet numbers. The star of singing cowboy pictures (Alden Ehrenreich, the true star of the film) finds himself contending with a sudden change in genre, as he is dubbed a big enough name to move into a starring role in a difficult adaptation of a Broadway hit, trying to keep its director (Ralph Fiennes) happy despite his inability to pronounce the dialogue.

The behind-the-scenes story of a Hollywood studio, even the kidnapping that the ad campaign has been focusing on exclusively, is all a red herring for the Coens to continue their endless discussion on religion in their films. Mannix is their tool here to do so, as in an early scene in the film, featuring a meeting with the local heads of four different faiths to discuss any possible issues with the Christ film; this scene is given more time and seriousness than any other set piece found herein. Mannix’s numerous visits to confession, in which his major sins are little white lies to his wife, are meant to shed a light on the character’s inner motivations. He also has two meetings with an executive with Lockheed, in which he is offered a dream job with easier hours and more money, but he can’t help but mutter, “Armageddon,” when shown a picture of the company’s work with developing the hydrogen bomb.

There are no huge revelations found in Caesar!, but I am reminded of last year’s Bridge of Spies here, which the Coens also handled the screenplay duties for. When Spies was released, it was considered somewhat of a misfire on Steven Spielberg’s filmography, due to it being considered a very good film instead of great. Both the Coens and Spielberg have entered that rare area in one’s film career where if a release isn’t immediately considered one of the greatest films ever, it has an air of disappointment.

The only way to walk away from Caesar! disappointed are those who walk in expecting anything more than the slapstick period piece that it is being promoted as. If you are able to be happy with a film that is “merely” one of the best comedies to be released in months, the Coen Brothers have given you an early Valentine’s Day gift.


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