HAIL CAESAR (2106)
Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen
Universal, 106 minutes, PG-13
I really like the Coens, a sibling collaboration that usually takes comedy to offbeat and surreal places. Sometimes, as in the case of Barton Fink or The Hudsucker Proxy, it takes a second watching to see what they are trying to do, but the Coens are never dull–until now. I wondered why Hail Caesar exited my local cinema faster than a teenage boy slapped by his date, and now I know. No one will ever watch this film twice, unless they are being tortured. Were it not for the fact that the Coens never work with mega budgets–and this film inexplicably made money thanks to DVDs and foreign release–this movie would be mentioned in the same breath as bombs such as Heaven's Gate, The Lone Ranger, The Alamo, Pan, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Speaking of Munchausen, you'd have to look to some of Terry Gilliam's misfires to find a messier pastiche of half-realized ideas. The Coens assembled a dynamite cast–including Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlet Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, and Frances McDormand—dressed them up in post-World War II clothing, but sent them down a road that's less silly than embarrassing. Putatively the film is an homage to Hollywood between the end of the war and the beginning of the Blacklist. Its protagonist, Eddie Mannix (Brolin), is a studio executive/fixer who's a cross between Sam Goldwyn and Sam Spade. We follow him over the course of several very bad crisis-laden days. His studio, Capitol Pictures, is trying to finish a few films, including a Gene Kelly-like song-and-dance film in which the last number is constantly botched by a sailor-clad lead who misses his exit cue and butt bumps other sailors in sodomy-suggestive ways. Yes, we're talking that level of humor.
Speaking of sodomy, Eddie has a bigger problem. The studio is about to put the wrap on a big-budget sword, sandal, and Jesus film, the titular Hail Caesar–think The Robe (1953)–when his lead actor, Baird Whitlock (Clooney) disappears. We shift from puerile stupid to profoundly ridiculous. As it transpires, Whitlock has been kidnapped by a group of communist writers who want to recruit him to their cause. He is holed up in a Malibu beach house and forced to take part in communist study groups led by—dear God!—Herbert Marcuse! Never mind that Whitlock is as dull as an anvil, our commie scribblers are pretty sure they can turn him Red–by blackmail if necessary. They know that he once did the nasty in a gay porno with one of Capitol Studio's famed directors, Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes).
If only this was the least plausible thing in the film. How about Tilda Swinton playing the dual role of rival sister gossip columnists?* Or Scarlett Johansson as an unmarried Esther Williams-like swimmer whose pregnancy presents moral issues for the studio, plus it makes her mermaid costume too tight? And then there is Alden Ehrenreich playing Hobie Doyle, a dumb-as-dung cowboy actor being (unsuccessfully) remade as a suave sophisticate. Why is he even in this film? His storyline goes nowhere.
The adjective "dopey" sums up Hail Caesar. There are neither laugh-out-loud moments nor noticeable production errors, so it's not even crummy enough to be future camp. There are certainly no hidden subtexts (as in Barton Fink) that make it worthy of deeper analysis. It is, simply, an ill-conceived mess from first frame to last. Had I been in the theater as opposed to my comfy recliner, I would have walked out in 20 minutes. Call Hail Caesar a rancid salad whose ingredients were never meant to be mixed. Rob Weir
*This is a riff on bickering columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who were not sisters.