Coen Brothers flub send-up of 1950s Hollywood
THE SANTA CLARA
February 18, 2016
I love the Coen Brothers. I’ve devoured every single one of their sixteen films, many of them more than once—in the case of “The Big Lebowski,” more than 20 times. I know all of their trademarks and nuances. I worship their style. I’m a student of their filmography. They are among the finest filmmakers not only of the past thirty years, but in the entire history of cinema.
My knees bounced as I prepared to watch their seventeenth film, “Hail, Caesar!,” a comedy set in 1950s Hollywood with a cast that includes A-listers Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, among many, many others.
But when the credits rolled 106 minutes later, I felt like I had wasted an eternity on an overstuffed, aimless, meaningless disaster of a movie. Simply put, it is the worst film the Coen Brothers have ever made.
The plot seemed good (and unmistakably Coen Brothers): Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures, who is desperate to find a dimwitted movie star (George Clooney) who has been kidnapped in the middle of the production of the studio’s biggest film of the year, “Hail, Caesar!”
The premise is fun, straightforward and, in the case of the Coen Brothers, delightfully threadbare. It looked to be a fast and whimsical take on Old Hollywood. Considering the talent behind and in front of the camera, it should have been a winner. But it ended up being a waste of potential.
Granted, it wasn’t entirely a trainwreck. A dreamy and carefully-choreographed water aerobics scene with Johansson was deliriously entertaining and a song and dance number with Tatum was surprisingly cheery. Clooney played the idiot masterfully (as he always does in Coen Brothers movies) and the cinematography and visual effects were typically well-executed.
There are impressive aspects of this movie. I am not denying that. But the overall elements of the film fell victim to laziness, carelessness or some combination of the two. The biggest problem with “Hail, Caesar!” is also its biggest attribute: the cast.
Realistically, the film could have done without half of its top billed stars. The roles played by Johansson, Hill, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Ralph Fiennes, though enjoyable, were expendable. The scenes involving these actors amounted to nothing more than superficially pretty detours from the main plot.
It was as if the Coen Brothers wanted to work with as many famous people as possible and refused to edit their messy and rambling script, which felt like a slapdash first draft. In the end, none of the characters, main or supporting, were properly developed, leading to a lack of relatability and emotionality in the film. Every performance felt like a cameo.
The story had so many inherent flaws and random moving parts that I mistook it for an American-made car. There was no tension, no uneasiness, no sense of danger. The humor fell flat, the dialogue labored and I found myself checking my phone every ten minutes.
Perhaps an R rating and some good ol’ fashioned violence could’ve helped this movie get off the ground. However, its PG-13 rating and tame nature kept it firmly planted here on Earth.
As far as themes and messages go, it seemed that the Coen Brothers wanted to make profound statements about the studio system, filmmaking as an art form, capitalism versus communism and religion. Again, they failed. There was no revelatory dialogue, no huge payoff and no provocative or symbolic imagery. There was no damning glimpse of Old Hollywood or of 1950s politics. There was no call to action.
I’m not saying a film needs profundity, or even that “Hail, Caesar!” was grasping at it (though the Coens usually do). But if a film is going to be surface-level, turn-off-your-brain entertainment, it needs to be a hell of a lot more entertaining than “Hail, Caesar!”
The fast, funny and fulfilling film that this latest effort strived to be is a picture that the Coen Brothers made over twenty years ago. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) takes place in 1958 and follows a bumbling business school graduate (Tim Robbins) who is unexpectedly appointed CEO of a prestigious manufacturing company in New York City and falls in love with a fast-talking, duplicitous reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who writes slanderous editorials about him.
Paul Newman co-stars as Sidney J. Mussburger, the company director who installs Robbins’ character as CEO to decrease the value of the company’s stock so he and his boardroom pals can buy up stock and maintain their hold over the once-thriving corporation.
Though it currently holds a 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Hudsucker Proxy” is an underrated and endlessly rewatchable movie that ranks among the Coens’ best efforts. It features repartee dialogue, timeless performances and a heartwarming finale. Also, Carter Burwell’s elegant and sweeping score is an all-timer.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a huge waste of potential, and a disappointing step back for the Brothers. Skip it and boot up “The Hudsucker Proxy.” It’s a fantastic movie that deserves the same recognition critics have given to “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men.”
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.