Matt Butler, The Tin Man, Tossing Copper


George Washington once said, "It's better to offer no excuse than a bad one." Here are three artists that pass Honest George's criterion: they admit it's hard to grow up decent and good—confessionals in the truest sense of owning one's personal sins. Four stars for each of these superb musicians….

The toughest release comes from Matt Butler, whose Reckless Son (NoiseTrade) is the title track and the album's theme. An unabashed post-addiction album, Reckless Sons testifies to the old idea that some people need to scrap bottom before they come up for air. Butler, New York-bred and based, once fronted a post-punk band and engaged in much of the despair associated with punk's hardest edges: drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, vagrancy…. Butler is clean these days and has left punk for that folk/country/rock hybrid called "Americana," but he's not ashamed to sing about his substance abuse , lost faith, disappointment, regret, and hurt.

 In one of the album's most gut-wrenching songs, "Good Friday," Butler sings of drifting to the street beneath his mother's apartment, longing to enter, but leaving because he knew he wasn't going to get sober. Butler's voice—which is often a sweet high tenor–contains just the right touch of pained punk strain. It makes a fine companion song to the album's opening track, the ironically titled "Home For Good," a song in which Butler uses "my mother's St. Christopher medal hanging 'round my neck" as the elusive dream of an easily derailed homeward redemption: "I meant it every time I said I was coming home for good." Numerous songs speak to the crooked path search for manhood. The central character in "Young Man's Prison" finds himself behind bars at age 17–a bad boy out of control who confuses heedlessness with cries for help. The title track imagines "what it's like to be the father of a reckless son." One of the most admirable traits of Butler's album is a lack of self-pity. The characters in the songs–and Butler admits most are based on him–can't really explain their actions hence (to invoke George Washington), they offer no excuses. This is a very powerful album; don't be scared off by its brutal honesty. The studio band is tight, the melodies are memorable, and Butler's range is impressive. He can be smooth and tender, but he can also bust it in the high and strong range to soar above the mix. He's sometimes compared to Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers)—apt, but toss in a little of the kicked-in-the-teeth resiliency of Slaid Cleaves.


Here's a Millennial story for you: A young man from Georgia does everything he's supposed to do: straight A's, law school, a practice with lots of toys and dough, followed by an equally successful corporate career. But he's neither happy nor fulfilled, so he decides to stop acting to a script written by others, walks away, and goes out on the road as a rock musician. That young man is Marshall Seese, Jr. who calls himself The Tin Man because of a line in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: "Once I had brains, and heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart." His EP, Too Many Lines is good stuff—really good stuff. Seese knows how to build a good rock song: start small, let it percolate, rise to a big bridge, go bigger, and then back off. His delightfully ambiguous lead song, "Already Gone" deserves lots of airplay. Is it the ultimate break up song, or one that accepts that loving is hard? Could go either way! "I want to love you like I'm already gone—sweet memory/I want to love you like it's already over/Nothing to lose—but you." I admired how Seese adjusts his voice to the moods demanded by each song. If he is stepping out in "Already Gone," he's also the guy with a fragile catch in his voice pleading "Please Don't Let Me Go," and the one who gets grungy and refuses to take his walking papers in "Don't Want to Be Free." His EP is just seven songs, two of which are alternate versions of the same song, but it has lots of moods. He's a rocker at heart, but check out the Appalachian gospel opening to the title track. He's also the guy who goes folky and tender on "I Know I." Hey Tin Man—keep following your heart. 


Tossing Copper is the stage name of singer/songwriter Jake Scott. His Silhouettes and Sand LP is an extension of an earlier EP and a signal he's ready for prime time. Scott's voice has the soothing qualities of someone like Bryan Adams, but the songs are heartfelt, not processed. He sets the mood early on by opening with "The Man I Want to Be." It's a hand clapper that's bouncy and danceable, but also contains a note of fragile uncertainty: "When I write the last words of this story/Will I be the man I want to be?" This is a thoughtful album that contains tender songs such as the acoustic country "Hello Darling," but it's mainly Scott's admission that he doesn't have things figured out. He grew up in a religious family, but it didn't take and that caused him deep anguish. Check out "Edge of Eden," a deeply emotive apology letter to his mother. Relationship woes emerge on "The Mason," in which he must confront the reality that the woman of his dreams was little more than an imaginary wall that easily crumbled. The title song, an emotional folk song supplemented with strings and harmonies, is etched with longing. His is another searching for a fully realized identity album, but Scott gives us more than a sad unburdening. "Ships of Cortez" is a hopeful little song with a bluegrass vibe with a bit of full-throated joyful rave thrown in. Scott also redirects some of his darker thoughts. "American Man" is a quiet, but devastating take down of chasing material dreams: "Green ties pulled tight like nooses/Hand shakes I'm taken in/Dreams die in time I lose it/Farewell my innocence/My worth is measured in signs/Next to numbers on a line…." Scott's voice is calm, yet somehow the song is more poignant than a didactic protest song or an invective-filled punk attack on the system. Scott has learned at least one life lesson well: it pays to be honest about what you think and feel.


Rob Weir


Pairing Presidents V: Reagan and JFK

And now… something to infuriate both conservative and liberal myth-makers: The president conservative icon Ronald Reagan most resembled is that great faux liberal John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The resemblances last even unto the grave. JFK was, of course, the martyred hero because of his assassination on November 22, 1963. Reagan survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, but his death from Alzheimer's disease in 2004 is often viewed in comparable tragic light.

How they are similar:

It begins with the fact that each was so charismatic that they were style setters: JFK (and his wife Jackie) was the poster child for the 1960s emphasis on youth; Reagan raised the bar on avuncular charm. Both were viewed as emblems of a new era: JFK as an end to the paranoia and witch hunts of the dour 1950s; Reagan as the end of the Sixties and as a symbol of free enterprise unleashed. In each case, their reputations exceeded their actual accomplishments. Both became legends, but I remind you that, in scholarly terms, legend occupies the middle position between factual history on one end and faith-based myth on the other.

Kennedy's numerous affairs became public knowledge only in death, but they were many and varied. Reagan is the only divorced president in U.S. history. (A Trump presidency would raise the number to three.) He cheated on his first wife and was an infamous Hollywood horn-dog before marrying Nancy in 1952. There is a lingering allegation that Reagan raped actress Selene Walters. Nancy is said to have carried on a long-term affair with Frank Sinatra.

JFK isn't known as a tax cutter, but he was; he reduced the graduated income tax rate from 20-90% to 14-65%, thereby handing the 1% a sizable handout. Reagan, of course, put into effect one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history. As a result, both presidents ran deficits: JFK the first since the end of World War Two (though he retired it) and Reagan the largest peacetime deficit (in real dollars) the nation had seen. (It has since been surpassed.)

Both presidents enjoyed low inflation. Neither was a particularly stalwart steward of the economy, reputations to the contrary notwithstanding. Kennedy enjoyed the postwar economic boom, but played a minimal role in advancing it. Reagan gets credit for ending stagflation and that is imaginative mythmaking. Supply side economics had very little to do economic recovery and those who benefitted from Reagan tax cuts mostly pocketed their saving rather than reinvesting in the economy. The Reagan years look good only in comparison to the 1970s; economic growth and the overall economy were far more robust in the 1960s. Moreover, job and family income growth in the 1980s was due almost entirely to three sources: the expansion of the low-wage service sectors, the record entry of women into the workplace, and the early wave of the new and unforeseen technology industry.

Neither man was strong on civil rights, though JFK gets more credit than he deserves. JFK did eventually send troops to quell violence associated with the Freedom Rides, marches and the attempt of James Meredith to enter the University of Mississippi, but he did so only under duress. JFK feared losing Southern votes at a time in which the region was a Democratic stronghold, and acted only in the face of outrageous Southern intransigence. He also authorized limited wiretaps on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reagan saw civil rights as a violation of states' rights and was probably a closet racist. He wanted to allow the Voting Rights Act to expire in 1981, but intense pressure forced him to extend it for ten years. Congress overrode his veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988.

Kennedy was stronger on support for labor unions than Reagan, though his administration rode both unions and U.S. Steel hard in 1962. Kennedy famously called parts of the business community "sons of bitches," but he imposed his will on both sides and cracked down on perceived union corruption. Reagan infamously broke the air traffic controllers' union and unleashed an assault on unions that left them reeling to the present day.

Both presidents delivered bold but hollow promises. JFK's domestic achievements were actually rather thin, once one gets past the Peace Corps. His rhetorical support for civil rights was strong; his delivery very weak. Reagan pleased cultural conservatives with his rhetoric, but did almost nothing to deliver on cherished agendas such as bringing back school prayer, overturning Roe v. Wade, or banning flag burning. His most notable attempt at stemming drug abuse—which reached record highs in the 1980s—was the much ridiculed and wholly ineffective "Just Say No" campaign. Historians now speculate that Reagan had very little genuine interest in these issues; despite his courting of evangelical support, Reagan was among the least religious presidents in American history.

Like Reagan, JFK was a strong law and order advocate. JFK allowed the last federal execution to take place and rather famously allowed his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to go after organized crime, especially within the Teamsters union.

Now for the biggies: Both men were Cold War presidents par excellence. JFK's résumé includes: green-lighting Eisenhower's foolish Bay of Pigs invasion, witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile crisis, considering the assassination of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, increasing the number of U.S. military advisors to Vietnam, unleashing the CIA across globe (including its possible role in assassinating Diem in Vietnam), setting up the Alliance of Progress in Latin America to counter perceived communist advances in the region, and (ahem!) involving the U.S. in a border dispute—rooted in oil politics–between Iraq and Kuwait.  Kennedy increased the defense budget to counter a perceived "missile gap" vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. On the plus side, he did approve a Partial Test Ban Treaty with the USSR and outlined plans to reduce nuclear weapons. But of all the myths surrounding Kennedy, few are bigger than the idea he planned to pull out of Vietnam. That's doubtful: his team was the very architect of US military intervention in Southeast Asia.

Reagan was the last Cold War president, but not a very thoughtful one until very late in his second term. Reagan raised tensions by calling the USSR an "Evil Empire," and proceeded to raise defense spending to levels that created massive deficits. Lots was squandered on things that didn't work, including the Strategic Defense Initiative, the neutron bomb, tanks that broke down, and fighter planes with flawed designs. He armed Taiwan, which angered China, and his Reagan Doctrine supported authoritarian regimes across the world if those governments were anti-communist. This was especially the case in Latin America, where the US supported brutal regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, and Chile. Reagan was obsessed by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and got embroiled in his own Bay of Pigs scenario: the Contra scandal (linked with Iran) that could have (perhaps should have) led to his impeachment. In another reckless maneuver, the Reagan team armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, including aid to Osama bin Laden. It wasn't until 1988 that Reagan realized the Cold War was ending and signed the INF Treaty with the USSR, but the claim that he "won" the Cold War is a myth on par with JFK's post-1964 plan for Vietnam.

The idea that Reagan was a "strong" leader also fails to pass historical muster. His foreign policy was bungling and often foolish. Like Jimmy Carter, Reagan saw several hostage crises during his presidency; unlike under Carter, not all hostages came home alive. Reagan's attempts to negotiate with Iran for hostage release—while publicly belittling Iran–yielded little except increased contempt on the part of Iranian leaders. Numerous Reagan initiatives were filled with strong talk and weak action, including the ill-defined peace mission to Lebanon that led to the death of over 300 US troops. His one "victory," was the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. Its invasion—just two days after 241 Americans died in a suicide bombing in Beirut–invites cynicism.

How they are different:

They differed in ideology: Kennedy was a Cold War liberal and Reagan a Cold War conservative. In addition, Kennedy was nominally a Keynesian economically, and Reagan a supply side advocate. As I have argued, this probably mattered more on paper than in reality, but Kennedy–had he lived–would have been far more likely to institute social and economic reforms. Kennedy was an advocate of positive government and Reagan of negative government, meaning that JFK was more willing to see government as the engine of social change, whereas Reagan advocated limited government power.

JFK's intellect far surpassed that of Reagan, who was never known as a deep thinker. Kennedy did not share Reagan's belief in deregulation; he was also more likely to support protectionist policies if he felt US industry was threatened.

Reagan's administration was the most indicted in US history, whereas JFK's was relatively scandal-free. This had something to do with changing times, but it also had much to do with the contempt with which Reagan officials felt for Congress and (by extension) U.S. law.


Conservatives want to put Reagan on Mt. Rushmore. It won't happen, nor should it. JFK currently ranks 11th (of 42) and Reagan 15th. Neither of these ratings will stand. In each case, style currently reigns over substance. Look for each to move down, once the romance associated with each figure fades.


Hell or High Water Might be the Best American Film of 2016

Directed by David Mackenzie
Lionsgate, 102 minutes, R (violence, language, very brief motel bonking)

A scene from Hell or High Water captures the film’s essence in one short slice of crisp dialogue. After a casino poker stare down between Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) and an enormous Native American appropriately named Bear (Gregory Cruz), the two confront each other in the lobby.

            Tanner: “Hey chief, you a Comanche?”
            Bear (Whips off sunglasses and glares at Tanner): “Yeah. Do you know what Comanche means?”
            Tanner (Standing toe-to-toe and glaring back: “Nope.”
            Bear (Nostrils flaring): “It means ‘enemy.’”
            Tanner (Inching closer and not batting an eye): “Oh yeah? You know what that makes me?  
              Bear: (Fists tightening) : An enemy? 
              Tanner (Long pause): A Comanche!”

Confrontation over. Both men understand that life in this dire chunk of hell on the Texas/Oklahoma border isn’t about race—it’s a survivor’s game in which normal rules are inoperable and the American Dream is a cruel joke.  Forget materialist promises—not since the days of Harry Dean Stanton has Texas been betrayed as this dire: a string of busted down towns about to crumble into dust. The only businesses are greasy spoons, cheap motels, debt relief services, bail bondsmen, and the Texas Midlands Bank—the last to whom most locals owe their souls. Tanner is the embodiment of despair: thirty-years-old and he’s spent ten of them in jail. Now he’s released to a dust-blown ranch upon which his mother–who died before his release–took out a reverse mortgage. His little brother, Toby (Chris Pine), is the nominal owner, but unless he can come up with 35 grand by month’s end, Midland will foreclose—despite (or, because of) the fact that oil has been discovered on the land.

Toby has his own crosses to bear. Not only is he on the cusp of losing the only thing that could end (at least) three-generations’ worth of poverty, he’s a divorced father of two boys, way behind on his child support, and simply fed up with being fed up. The solution? Team up with Tanner and rob remote Midland Bank branch offices. Take only loose, non-traceable bills from their cash drawers. Continue and hope this will raise enough money to buy the ranch back with Midlands' own money! At least that Toby’s plan–but he’s not as far gone as Tanner.

Enter the law. It’s the last case before forced retirement for the wily Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who hits the dirt byways with his mixed race partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton knows the Texas backcountry and its ways, but he’s grown tired, sick, and cynical. He wiles away long days of waiting by cracking racist jokes he thinks are funny and endearing—and they are meant to be the latter–about Alberto’s Indian heritage, much to Alberto’s growing disgust.

Hell or High Water is far more than your average solve-the-crime film. It’s not only the best film to emerge from a desultory summer of blow-‘em-ups, ridiculous superhero comic remakes, and mediocre sci-fi—it’s also a strong candidate for the best American film of 2016. Moral ambiguity oozes from each encounter in this film, and we soon come to see this as hopelessness in a hopeless land. It’s not the bank robbers who are on trial; it’s the banks they loot and, more generally, the very essence of the American Dream. In these parts, hard work and moral values beget poverty, and poverty begets devil-take-the-hindmost apathy. This isn’t a place of rugged individualism—more like a who-gives-a-fuck temperament. If you are left wondering who in their right mind would continue to live in West Texas*, you missed an important point: these are people who lack options.

Amazing performances dominate this film, with the Californian Pine proving his chops with accents and establishing the fact that he’s more than a pretty face. Gil Birmingham is wonderful as a calm man doing his best to contain simmering outrage, and Bridges once again manages to be dynamic whilst playing a world-weary character–in this case a role similar to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men (2007). In fact, the Texas State Chamber of Commerce ought to consider paying Stanton, Jones, and Bridges to never again portray a Texan, lest no tourist ever venture to the Lone Star State.

Kudos go to Taylor Sheridan for a sharp screenplay. One of the things that keeps Hell or High Water from becoming relentlessly depressing is that is punctuated with moments of laugh-out-loud humor. There is a small throw away scene in which Alberto and Marcus plop down at a small town T-bone restaurant and must endure a tongue lashing from the waitress (Margaret Bowman). It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. Equally amusing are the small bits of buddy banter between the Howard brothers and between Marcus and Alberto.

It would be easy to overlook this film amidst the empty noise of summer blockbusters–I almost did–but don’t make this mistake. Hell or High Water is superb and it might just make you think there are people in Hollywood who still know how to make movies. 

Rob Weir

* The movie’s fictional setting is West Texas, but the real towns mentioned are actually in North Texas. Moreover, most of the film was actually filmed in Clovis, New Mexico—presumably because of tax breaks not available in Texas, which is it’s own ironic (pathetic?) commentary of the film’s subject matter.


Pairing Presidents IV: George H. Bush and William Howard Taft

George H. W. Bush and William Howard Taft:
Presidential Pairings IV

Welcome to the trivia segment. Does anyone remember who replaced Lou Gehrig when his 2,130 games streak ended? Or Cal Ripkin, Jr. after 2,632 consecutive starts? It's hard to follow a star act. Taft took office after the energetic reformism of Teddy Roosevelt, and Bush after eight years of Ronald Reagan. One can—and I will–take some of the luster off of TR and Reagan, but the public adored both. Neither William Howard Taft nor George Herbert Walker Bush had the "star power" to impress in their own right.

How they are similar:

Neither man was temperamentally suited to be president. Taft was, by training and experience, a judge. Before being elected president in 1908, Taft had been an Ohio judge, a federal judge, Solicitor General of the United States, and Secretary of War. He was almost appointed to the Supreme Court in 1889, and became Chief Justice of that body in 1921, six years after leaving the White House.

Bush served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, but his first love was foreign affairs. Overall, Bush was more of an administrator and diplomat than a politician. Among his pre-presidential jobs, he was ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Council on Foreign Affairs, envoy to China, and director of the CIA. (He also served on the boards of various banks.)

Neither Taft nor Bush is particularly known for their domestic policies, though each had more on their résumés than usually assumed. Roosevelt had a reputation as a "trust buster," but it was Taft who implemented the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly. Roosevelt initiated the assault on John Rockefeller's oil trust, but Taft actually took down more monopolies than TR. Taft also appointed six Supreme Court justices, most of them moderate or conservative, but each with solid judicial backgrounds.

It surprises many, but George H. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also reauthorized—over the howl of the development-at-any-cost business community–the Clean Air Act. Bush actively promoted volunteerism, though his "thousand points of light" campaign invited lampoon.

Neither man distinguished himself in immigration policy. Taft wanted a literacy test for immigrants; Bush's 1990 reform act is said to have caused more illegal immigration, rather than rationalizing policy.

Each man is remembered for trivial things: Taft for being our most corpulent president and for being the first chief executive to open the baseball season by throwing out the first pitch. Bush is often recalled for a penchant for mangling words and, in the 1992 election, for being patrician and not knowing grocery stores had price scanners.

Each is remembered most for foreign policy initiatives. Taft deserves credit for modernizing the State Department; among other things, he staffed experts to the desks of defined regions: the Far East, Western Europe, and Latin America. His "Dollar Diplomacy" in Latin America, which links aid to support for U.S. positions, continues to the present–for better or worse. Taft defended the Panama Canal, a Roosevelt initiative.

Bush is recalled for being the POTUS when the Cold War ended, though he seldom gets much credit for making that happen. He is better remembered for sending troops to Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega, who was accused of drug smuggling. He also authorized the first Gulf War, a decision that was wildly popular at the time, but which now invites reassessment.

Both men disappointed their own parties. Taft did not share Roosevelt's commitment to conservation and battled forestry chief Gifford Pinchot. This earned Roosevelt's wrath to the point where he ran a third party campaign against Taft in 1916. (For trivia buffs, it's the only time a third party finished second in a presidential race, though Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election.)

Bush promised "no new taxes" when he ran for the presidency in 1988, but was forced to raise them when he discovered the depth of Reagan's deficit spending. The fact that he had called the Reagan tax cut ideas "voodoo economics" when he opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries made him seem traitorous to GOP hardliners. Others criticized him for his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment of Anita Hill. Thomas was confirmed, but the GOP has fared poorly with women since.

Presidents that history judges as superior followed both men: Wilson and Clinton.

How they were different:

Taft had superior reform credentials. Neither man was a social gadfly, but Taft was more gregarious than Bush, who was noted for being stiff. There are other surface differences, but Taft and Bush I are generally seen as placeholder presidents.


Taft is rated 23 and Bush as 22 (of 42). Bush will surely drop as the ratings pool increases. One newer poll has Taft 36 and Bush 31. Taft deserves better, but 31 is in the ballpark for Bush.  


Coen Brothers Hail Caesar a Rancid Salad


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.