Dwight and I saw Hail, Ceaser!, the latest Coen brothers film. While I enjoyed it (like all the Coen Brothers films I’ve seen), I’ve got to rank it among their lesser films.
It’s the tale of a 1950s Hollywood studio troubleshooter (Josh Brolin, disappearing into the role as usual) trying to solve various studio problems. Aquatic star Scarlet Johansson is unmarried and preggers, a big no-no for the era. Missing a male star for a sophisticated urban romantic comedy, the studio promotes game-but-out-of-his-depths oater star Alden Ehrenreich. And in the main plotline, George Clooney, the star of the title, Ben Hur-like movie-within-a-movie, has been kidnapped (by, as it turns out (spoilers!) communists).
There’s tons of A-List talent in the film, but it’s Ehrenreich who steals the show. His apparently dim cowboy star Hobie Doyle has hidden depths, and it’s his powers of observation that actually unravel the final part of the film. (And if that’s him doing his own singing, he also has a great voice.)
Things I like about the film (more spoilers):
I like that Johansson’s character ends up marrying Jonah Hill’s character, as it strikes me as the sort of marriage that could work out really well. She get’s “the most reliable guy in the world” instead of another bum and he gets to marry far above his league. I could totally see their characters as a Hollywood power couple and Hill taking over Brolin’s troubleshooter job 20 years down the line (assuming the office survives the end of the studio player system).
I like Hobie’s character arc. I’ve seen more than one writer refer to “lovable but dim Hobie,” and the people writing that are either morons or the didn’t watch the movie, which goes a long way to prove that Hobie is anything but dim.
I like that the Hollywood communists are actually in league with the Soviet Union.
I like that the commies don’t end up with the money.
But there are problems. One is that we don’t actually think any of our ostensible protagonists have anything at risk, and thus we don’t fear for any of the sympathetic characters. But the main problem with Hail, Caesar! is that it’s a movie with lots of swell scenes that somehow add up to less than the sum of their parts. There’s an On the Town singing-and-dancing sailors number so well choreographed and executed Gene Kelly would be proud. (Turns out that Channing Tatum is an excellent dancer.) The Ester Williams water number (complete with mechanical whale) is a jaw-dropper as well; it must have cost them several million just to stage that one scene. Those scenes are so great that the lack of real payoff for watching Naive Commie 101 Bull Sessions is all the more disappointing.
Honestly, I think I would enjoy the Coen Brothers throwing their full weight behind doing their version of any of the imaginary movies in here more than I enjoyed Hail, Caesar! (with the possible exception of Hobie’s B-Western Lazy Old Moon; that did indeed look pretty dire). I like “watching the movie sausage get made” movies, but I think it’s much more interesting watching the sausage get made on a single film.