Hail Caesar isn’t a ‘good movie.’ It hangs together about as well as a shirt made out of snot. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun watching it. I think I continuously smiled for about 75% of its running time. It’s utter, incoherent nonsense, but I think that’s something I can tolerate every once in a while.
Hail Caesar is the Coen Brothers film I’ve seen that makes the least amount of sense. A friend of mine compared it to Fiasco, the roleplaying game where a group of people draw randomized character roles and act out (a Coen-Brothers-esque, according to the actual rules!) story about ambitious people behaving badly. In games of Fiasco, you will have a lot of hilarious interactions with your fellow-players, but nobody’s in charge of the ‘plot’ of the story, if one can even be said to exist. Things just happen. Fiasco is a grab-bag of interesting scenes, and the scenes are where you find the fun. Same for Hail Caesar.
Hail Caesar tries to tell the story of Eddie Mannix, a film studio executive working in Hollywood during the 1950s. (He was a real person, but Hail Caesar’s version is totally fictionalized.) He’s played very expressively by Josh Brolin, who does a great job despite the fact that the character, as he’s written, makes no sense whatsoever, and is probably the least compelling human in the entire movie. Mannix is a producer, and a ‘fixer’ who helps stars hide their indiscretions; during the film he helps to conceal infidelity, potential treason, a kidnapping, some hopscotch lawyer jokery involving an actual human baby, and a variety of other extremely entertaining, morally ambiguous stuff.
Though he solves all these embarrassing problems without a single moral twinge, he is secretly a huge square, and is absolutely wracked with guilt about completely irrelevant shit, like his smoking habit. This would be a fun character contradiction if the script sold it in any believable way, but no matter how hard Brolin commits to it, there isn’t enough in the movie about Mannix to make it stick, and the stuff that’s there is weird and contradictory. He’s a Catholic who goes to church literally every day, but doesn’t know enough basic Catholic theology to even have a conversation with a priest. He behaves as if he’s on eggshells with his wife, despite the fact that she’s written and acted like a unquestioningly devoted partner. He has a Great Dilemma which is so badly forced that it never even once feels like a serious dilemma of any kind. He feels like a bunch of Everyman qualities written on tennis balls and shot out of a potato cannon at a velcro target.
Sorry, that’s a very specific image. What I mean is: he’s sloppy. He’s sloppy, and he is the only thing hurting this movie.
Because it’s the minor characters who really make the film. If Hail, Caesar! had been presented as a deliberately unfocused collection of vignettes, I would have loved it unreservedly. Its themes might have even stood out better without Mannix scrambling around trying to unite them. Almost every single minor character lives out a full and satisfying little story– from Hobie Doyle (Alden Erenreich), the cowboy film star who struggles with an ‘image change,’ to DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the synchronized-swimmer-slash-actress who’s pregnant without a husband. The most impressive treatment is reserved for Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly-style leading man who appears in only three scenes, yet enjoys more personality, mystery, drama, and humor than anyone else in the film. Very few moments actually feel wasted. Like a game of Fiasco, it’s got a kind of moment-to-moment vivacity that, had it been handled better, could have left me recommending this movie to everyone I know.
The moments just don’t make any sense together, that’s all.
Hail, Caesar! has a lot to say about religion, politics, showbiz, responsibility, faith, history, and the film-studio system, and in trying to juggle these themes, it drops every single one. But it has life; it made me smile; it made me let out one or two uncontrollable barks of laughter.
And at the end, it made one of the people in my showing blurt “WHAT?” at the final credits, a “That’s IT??” implied to the rest of the theater as we all chuckled, uncomfortably, and headed for the doors.
And I was uncomfortable, too. But I’d been smiling the whole time, and I was still smiling, and I’m smiling even now, remembering it.