by Charles Lewis III
The problem with setting the bar high is that every time you don’t reach it, it’s seen as a failure rather a one-off instance. Granted, if it happens enough times, it could be indicative of a decline in quality, but peaks and valleys are part of having a long career. The real crime would be a career in which the quality of one’s work never changed at all. That means they never took any risks or went outside their comfort zone; in art, that tends to make for some pretty boring work. If any career is marked by peaks and valleys, it’s that of the Coen Brothers.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a man very good at his job; the job in question being Head of Production at Capitol Pictures. Mannix is currently overseeing the production of the studio’s current prestige picture, a big-budget Roman epic titled Hail Caesar: A Tale of Christ. Between garnering the approval of religious leaders, juggling dueling twin-sister columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton), and mulling over an offer to work for Lockheed, Mannix also has a new worry in the form of Hail Caesar star Baird Whitlock being kidnapped for ransom. Over the next 24 hours, Mannix will lie, cajole, glad-hand, and confess his sins, all in an attempt to keep the gears of the studio moving smoothly.
Hail Caesar! is one of “those kinds” of Coen Brothers films. It isn’t a work of pure genius like Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or No Country for Old Men; nor does it appear to have the cult appeal of Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, or O Brother, Where art Thou?. Hail Caesar! falls into the category of “also ran” Coen films; the ones existing in a strange limbo of not being terrible, but not quite memorable either. This includes Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and Burn After Reading. These films seem often seem like exercises in which the Coens engage so as to not be rusty when it’s time for their next masterpiece.
This film has all the pieces of what could make a Coen Brothers masterpiece – some of their regular actors, an obsessive attention to period detail, unresolved plot lines that lead the audience to watch it again – but the pieces don’t really fit. There are moments of gut-busting humor and true pathos, but there’s no real reason to care about any of it. It’s as if the screenplay were a first draft from which they foolishly decided to use for the full production.
To the credit of all involved, everything that works right works very right. In addition to the aforementioned actors, the cast also includes Ralph Fiennes as a stuffy British director, Alden Ehrenreich as a dim cowboy actor, Scarlett Johansson a fast-talking “mermaid” actress and Frances McDormand briefly shows up to steal the one scene she’s in. Michael Gambon’s disembodied narrator is the one cast member who doesn’t fit.
The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! isn’t the prestige picture like its film-within-a-film namesake. It’s just a breezy preview before the Coens’ next big attraction.
Rating: ***1/2 (Three-and-a-half)