In Hail Caesar!, the latest from the Coen Brothers, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is an actor during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He is introduced on-screen in a meta framing—a screening within a screening—portraying a Roman leader in a historical epic a la Spartacus. During filming of this movie, Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped.
Hail Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ love letter to classical Hollywood cinema. The standard genres of the period are represented: Westerns, historical epics, Broadway musical adaptations, bourgeois romance, etc.
The structural issue of this love letter is that it is too indulgent on exploring the world of the setting that the brothers are so in love with. The film takes lengthy diversions from the major conflict of the plot for the sake of adding homages to conventional scenes from these various genres.
The pacing of these individual scenes are wonderful, but they take away from the pacing of the film as a whole.
In some ways, these homage scenes provide a more cinematic spectacle than the main plot does. Anecdotely, at multiple points in the screening that I attended people took the chance to take a bathroom break during scenes depicting the main story, as opposed to these extended homage scenes that add nothing to the plot.
The movie is propped up by acting performances from Josh Brolin and Ralph Fiennes. Brolin’s order-striving PR figure creates a noir element to every scene he’s in, all thanks to his suave, controlled performance. And Fiennes is perfectly natural as a pretentious high-profile director, although he appears in the film only briefly. An early scene between him and Alden Ehrenreich—also with a noteworthy performance—is golden.
Clooney, on the other hand, gives an underwhelming turn as the film’s MacGuffin. He appears sparsely throughout, but does little to create a character for himself. His interactions with his kidnappers are humorous, but this is more on the part of the supporting cast than Clooney.
Not even taking into account narrative conveniences or inconsistencies, the script of this film is jumpy. Take away the homages, and there are still a few dozen characters that get the minority of screen time and serve the film only to move certain plot arcs along. But, some of the plots arcs that these characters move don’t serve much of a place in the A-plot of the film anyway.
For a time, we follow Scarlett Johansson’s uptight actress character, but it is entirely divorced from the rest of the film. There is a romantic B-plot that takes place over the course of two scenes, but it only serves to coincidentally reveal another character’s motives to Ehrenreich’s character.
What we are left with is a jumble of characters and plot points that only connect loosely through Brolin’s character. Strip all of this excess plot away, and the main plot of the film doesn’t entirely make sense.
Hail Caesar! satirically tackles ideology, purpose, and faith in the face of corporate control. But these themes, among other things, get lost in the glitz and glamour of the world being satirized. What we are left with is cinephilia personified at the expense of narrative cohesiveness.
On a final note, the film looks great. You did it again, Roger Deakins.
As far as the Coen Bros. oeuvre is concerned, Hail Caesar! falls near the middle, if not trailing off into the back half. It does a lot of things right in a Coen Bros. way, so fans of theirs (like me) will find reasons to enjoy it. The Coen Bros. swung for the fences like they always do, which is commendable. However, it’s more of a Ladykillers than a Fargo, if you know what I mean.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Hail Caesar!? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)