Josh Brolin at his Desk in Hail Caesar

Hail Caesar!

In a nutshell: Hail Caesar! is a major misfire for the Coen brothers – smug, boring and unfunny.

Hail Caesar! features: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum
Writers/Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Australian release date: Thu 25 Feb

Review: (rolanstein)
I’ve been a big fan of the Coen brothers since Barton Fink way back in 1991. Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country For Old Men (especially) – all great. They don’t always hit the mark, but I can’t recall any of their movies that hasn’t at least been worth a look. Until now.

Hail, Caesar is a send-up of Hollywood circa early 50s, when big production companies had multiple movies of different genres perpetually on the boil in a honeycomb of studio sets. The stars were contracted to one company and milked for all the bucks they could bring in, which meant assigning them roles and film genres on the basis of past success (or reassigning them to something radically different on speculation of enhancing or restoring drawing power), manipulating their public personas, pandering to their whims – whatever it took to keep the box office figures zooming.

Josh Brolin is at the hub of the action as Eddie Mannix, a troubleshooter for Capitol Pictures (get it?). He juggles a multitude of problems, including the struggle of dumbarse singing cowboy Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) to make the switch from saddle to romantic lead in an unfamiliar genre, and the complaints of despairing director (Ralph Fiennes), who is tearing his hair out at Hobie’s acting ineptitude. Then there is the mermaid star of some weird water ballet genre, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who is pregnant and unwed, and therefore at risk of disillusioning her public. Worst of all, Capitol’s current Biblical sword-and-sandals epic is in crisis, with star Roman centurion (George Clooney) having been kidnapped by a group of underpaid screenwriter communists demanding a ransom.

The set-up has comedic potential, but it is not realised. The effort put into doing so is apparent both in the writing and performances, but the rewards are not. Not that everyone at the screening I attended shared this view. As I sat there unmoved, plenty of others chuckled on cue. Indeed, the twit next to me was on the edge of hysteria from the opening frames, at times slapping his knees and stamping his appreciation with both feet. I was inclined to ask him mid-way if he had any more of his stupid pills to get me to credit roll, but settled for contemptuous sideways glowering and fantasising about giving him an elbow to the head. (Does that make me a bad person?)

There’s more to this concoction than humour, mind. Big thoughts swirl beneath the surface, but the philosophical cause is lost if the viewer does not buy the film as a package. I didn’t. In fact, for the bulk of the film I was bored. And I couldn’t be bothered putting any work into figuring out What It All Meant.

It’s not only that the film is unfunny. A half-decent story would have been some compensation, but the narrative is slight at best, woven in and out of a patchwork of excerpts from the films being shot at Capitol Pictures’ studios. The best of these is a musical featuring a group of sailors in a bar, who perform a lively song and dance sequence. The choreography is imaginative and fun, the execution slick and reminiscent of those old Hollywood song-and-dance classics. Enjoyable and entertaining stuff, while it lasted.

As was a send-up of cowboy flick gimmicks incorporating lassoing tricks, horse-riding acrobatics, and six-gun finger-spinning. I couldn’t escape the uneasy feeling, though, that the film excerpts amounted to some finger-spinning from the Coens. Nothing wrong with an affectionate look back at cinema of days long past, but the excerpts come across as indulgent genre dabbling. Work in a bit of a narrative drawing on historical references (the Hollywood Ten), chuck in some some Big Thoughts and a ensemble cast of name actors and ta-daaa…

The Coens are among my favourite directors and I don’t like dissing them, but I have to be honest. This is a major misfire. Hopefully, it is not symptomatic of their succumbing to the lethal condition of believing in their own myths.

If, like me, you make it your business not to miss a new Coens release, be sure to take some stupid pills before this one. And beware of flying elbows.

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