Joel and Ethan Coen amuse themselves, and few others, in this unpleasantly incoherent 1950s farce.
A starry ensemble cast (almost none of whom actually share scenes with one another). A complex plot that can’t really be described on paper. A release so soon after the Oscars that nobody will notice its omission from next year’s nominations. Everything about Hail, Caesar! screams The Monuments Men– George Clooney’s previous ill-fated period piece, which emerged an astoundingly unappealing film in early 2014. Joel and Ethan Coen’s Caesar doesn’t really deserve a comparison to such filmic detritus, but the sheer lack of whelm throughout is difficult to ignore. The Coens are some of this century’s greatest American filmmakers. Very recently, they contributed to the script of the terrific Bridge of Spies. So when they direct, write and produce a mediocre product, it’s clear that they just aren’t trying. Maybe they overdosed on caffeine. Maybe they let the interns write the jokes. Likeliest is that they were handed a large cheque by Universal and decided to entertain themselves for a few months, hanging with their friends (and oh what friends!) on expensively-crafted film sets. You can’t deny they got their wish.
The “plot”: George Clooney’s bumbling movie star is kidnapped by a mysterious group known as ‘The Future’. Josh Brolin’s studio fixer tries to get him back, whilst dealing with a handful of simultaneous issues: Scarlett Johansson is pregnant, Ralph Fiennes can’t find a lead for his costume drama and Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists are sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Joel and Ethan treat us to a series of flimsy sketches with an almost inhumane lack of laughs in both. Brolin and Clooney show seriously poor comedic skill in their leading roles, while the legitimately funny Johansson and Jonah Hill have literally a handful of lines each. One longs for the classically-Coenesque energy of Johns Goodman or Turturro. Frances McDormand’s one short scene is the highlight of the film. Only Alden Ehrenreich, the least famous face on display, seems to be exerting any effort at all, and it pays off for him. Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell, clocking in favours for their regular employers Joel and Ethan, are totally wasted on- respectively- a few fancy noir shots and some misplaced musical queues.
A new subgenre of “Respected Auteurs Play In Sandbox; Audience Looks On Bored” filmmaking has begun to emerge (see Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa as very recent evidence) in Hollywood, and we don’t really like it. Hail, Caesar! is in many ways a pathetic excuse for a feature film. It would be a pathetic excuse for a 20-minute NBC sitcom pilot. Your enjoyment of it will depend heavily on your willingness to watch the Coen Brothers laugh at their own bad jokes for 2 hours. There are worse things to watch…