Hail, Caesar! is the kind of film that gets described by critics — often affectionately — as a "love letter" to something (in this case, Hollywood in the early 1950s). But here's the thing about love letters: Reading someone else's tends to be a little boring. Creators Joel and Ethan Coen clearly love this distinct era in Hollywood history. What Hail, Caesar! fails to do is say anything meaningful about it.
If it seems like I'm being unduly hard on Hail, Ceasar!, it's only because the Coen brothers' filmography is so uncommonly strong that they need to be graded on a sharp curve. So let's start with the Consumer Reports logline of any movie review: Should you see Hail, Caesar!?
Of course. It's a new Coen brothers movie. Even if it wasn't, this is February; the only other movies opening wide this weekend are The Choice and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But while there's not a single Coen brothers movie I'd recommend skipping — no, not even Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers — it's worth tempering your expectations for Hail, Caesar!, which cheerfully skims on the surface while hinting at the more pointed, focused, and profound movie it could have been.
In the broadest strokes, Hail, Caesar! follows Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), employed by the fictional Capitol Pictures, over the course of one extremely eventful day. The studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has vanished in the middle of a key shooting day. A dim-bulb western star (Alden Ehrenreich) has been cast in a melodrama, and his skills aren't translating at all, to the great irritation of his foppish director (Ralph Fiennes). An Esther Williams-esque actress (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant out of wedlock. Eddie is tasked with fixing each of these problems, and doing it quietly enough that it doesn't end up in the tabloids (written by dueling gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton). And on top of that, Eddie is mulling a job offer from Lockheed that would make him much richer and add some stability to his life — but without the daily zaniness of his work in the movie business.
In case that plot summary isn't clear enough, I'll make it plain: Hail, Caesar! is absurdly overstuffed with characters and subplots. I haven't even mentioned the communist scheme to kidnap Baird Whitlock, or Channing Tatum's big dance number, or the weird little one-off cameo roles for actors like Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Alison Pill, and Christopher Lambert. The Coens have pulled this kind of thing off before — The Big Lebowski is basically 117 straight minutes of wacky digressions — but Hail, Caesar! is shakier from its first frame to its last.
The good news for Coen brothers fans is that Hail, Caesar! is basically an amalgam of everything they've fixated on over the course of their careers. The bad news is that they've handled all of those things with more grace and depth before. The Big Lebowski is a better Los Angeles shaggy dog story. The Hudsucker Proxy is a wittier screwball comedy. Barton Fink is a sharper, brainier Hollywood satire. A Serious Man is a more insightful look at a man grappling with religion. And the same problem extends to Hail, Caesar!'s roster of stars; Brolin, Clooney, Johansson, and Swinton appeared in at least one of the Coens' previous films, and were invariably better.
At the end of Hail, Caesar!, what you're left with is a sense of the deep and abiding affection the Coens have for this particular era in Hollywood history. The film works best in individual scenes, when the Coens abandon their gossamer-thin plot and deliver their own microcosms of the movies that inspired Hail, Caesar!: a beautifully choreographed synchronized swimming routine for Scarlett Johansson; a wonderfully cheesy black hat/white hat western for Alden Ehrenreich; and most of all, the long, Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance routine performed by Channing Tatum, which has basically nothing to do with the story, and is easily the film's best scene.
All of that is fine for what it is — but there are hints that Hail, Caesar! used to be a weightier movie, or at least a more focused one. It was originally teased as a 1920s-set movie focused on Clooney's character. The switch to a 1950s Hollywood fixer seems to have been a later evolution of the story, and it probably stemmed from the Coens' real-life interest in the era; unlike the rest of the fictionalized pastiche characters in the film, Brolin's Eddie Mannix is named after (and purportedly based on) the real-life studio fixer of the same name.
Hail, Caesar!'s Eddie Mannix does bear a passing resemblance to the real-life Mannix, who was also a devout Catholic and an all-around fixer for a major studio. But the real-life Mannix was also a nastier figure. Yes, he was skilled at burying actors' PR snafus: benders and car wrecks and unplanned pregnancies. But he also buried more horrific scandals — most notably, the horrific smearing of a woman who was raped at an MGM party, whose story Mannix successfully buried for more than 60 years.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens simply aren't interested in engaging with the darker reality of the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s. This candy-coated version bears so little resemblance to the real world that I'm baffled by the decision to name Brolin's protagonist after the real-life Mannix, which can only invite this kind of scrutiny.
And that leaves little choice but to judge the film for what it is saying. To really appreciate what Hail, Caesar! is doing, you have to look beyond the reality of Hollywood and move to the next layer: Hollywood's movies about Hollywood. To my mind, the key to Hail, Caesar! is one of the Coens' own acknowledged favorites: Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy Sullivan's Travels, which offers a similarly sprightly tribute to Hollywood. In that film, protagonist John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) — a Hollywood director known for his goofy comedies — becomes obsessed with making a movie that will offer "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity," which he plans to call O Brother, Where Art Thou?. (That title, of course, should sound awfully familiar to Coen fans.)
In the end, Sullivan realizes that his goofy comedies can do more to staunch humankind's suffering than any straight-faced drama. "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh," he concludes. "Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much — but it's better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan." It's a lesson the Coens seem to have built into the DNA of Hail, Caesar!, which gets plenty of laughs without a lot to say. And if that's the case, I'm inclined to agree: It isn't much — but it's better than nothing.