“Hail, Caesar!” Lost in Tumults of Old School Hollywood

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia

Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers who have directed a nearly uninterrupted string of critically-acclaimed movies for decades, have set the bar high for American filmmakers. Their last name is a byword for excellence.

But great auteurs occasionally make bad films, and “Hail, Caesar!” is certainly a flop: an aimless ramble through the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s a movie focused upon visual decadence, not effective storytelling.

The ever-excellent Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the “fixer” for Capitol Pictures. The major studio is wrapping up production on “Hail, Caesar!” – an unintentionally campy historical epic featuring Baird Whitlock, a genial movie star with the IQ of an ant. The poor Whitlock – played by a delightfully clueless George Clooney – manages to get himself kidnapped by an organization known as “The Future,” forcing Mannix to retrieve him before Capitol Pictures goes over-budget.

The film is a ceaseless parade of celebrity cameos. Wayne Knight of “Seinfeld” appears in a toga and Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid’s tail; Channing Tatum is a tap-dancing sailor and Ralph Fiennes, a snobbish director. Mannix meets with each in turn, and while each interaction is independently humorous, they fail to build upon one another. The result is a lackluster plot wandering in countless directions, all of which lead nowhere.

“Hail, Caesar!” lends itself readily to a meta-textual reading: the film holds opulence above substance, like the worst of the old Hollywood productions – its script is as half-baked as the characters’ worldviews. It’s tempting to believe this duality is an intentional conceit on behalf of the Coen brothers, but such conjecture is ultimately irrelevant: the film’s bad. The directors’ intentions do not matter.

Little things, like the storybook narration provided with zeal by Michael Gambon, help keep “Hail, Caesar!” afloat – but the true saving grace of the film is its cinematography. Shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers, “Hail, Caesar!” is beautiful to look at. The half-built sets of Capitol Pictures become wonderlands in Deakins’ hands. He transforms the tawdry into the tasteful.

The Coen brothers’ latest venture is a beautiful disaster, its highs outweighed by its lows. The stellar performances, the sumptuous set design and the beautiful cinematography – none of it can make up for the film’s poor writing.

Although "Hail, Caesar!" isn't worthy of an exclamation point, it is a film certainly worth watching. It’s a Coen brothers film, after all; they always manage to touch upon greatness, however briefly. Wait for it to debut on Netflix, then chase it down with "Fargo" or "No Country For Old Men."