Hail, Caesar! is the latest film from the much acclaimed Coen Brothers, whose previous ventures have ranged from lighthearted O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the bleak, gritty No Country For Old Men.
The cast this time around is quite the ensemble, with both familiar faces and devoted fans of the twins’ directorial biographies. Among the characters are Deana Moran, a romanticized beauty fittingly played by Scarlett Johannson, Laurence Laurentz, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes as a refined and demanding director, and George Clooney as a similarly legendary actor, Baird Whitlock. The premise revolves around Whitlock, who is kidnapped whilst filming the movie’s titular production by a group that calls itself The Future. Unfortunately, while the movie is technically well-made—stunning even—the cast and premise seem to have a wealth of untapped potential.
Part of this untapped potential stems from The Future itself, the supposed antagonists of the film. Their nature is revealed early on to be much too well-meaning to pose any real threat to the protagonists or the institutions they promote. This would be fine if the cast underwent their own character arcs or experienced any serious revelations, ala Big Lebowski. Instead, the characters seem to be in a psychological stasis. Few are different at their conclusion than they appeared in their introduction.
The conflicts in Caesar don’t quite involve the audience because we don’t care about the people involved. The exception to this is Hogey, a naive young man whose dull speech and strong accent have him typecasted as a Western star. The story of his being forced into Thespian acting under the strict counsel of Laurentz is one of the few that had me invested, and yet it has so little to do with the film’s primary narrative that it seems distracting at best.
With Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers have made a film that is equal parts homage, parody and critique of Old Hollywood. Studio lots stretch for miles, with stages housing aquatic orchestras, Roman marches and even sea-faring musicals. We’re treated to plenty of these performances, as tongue-in-cheek as they are visually impressive. The film goes out of its way to portray the showmanship and efficiency of filmmaking at a time when studios were movie factories. This was a topic addressed in the directorial duo’s Barton Fink, but only sparingly.
Hail, Caesar! is quirky, and several degrees further than the usual Coen Brothers’ mystery or drama. One could not be blamed for mistaking Caesar for one of Wes Anderson’s films, especially with Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton so often on-screen. Anderson’s films are often strange for strangeness sake’; Caesar embraces that approach wholeheartedly. The result is a film with a lack of substance, often sacrificing character for comedy.
It’s bittersweet to watch a new film by tried and true directors because there’s a standard of quality in mind. In the case of the Coen Brothers, this bar is unusually high. Thus, Caesar manages all at once to be impressive, entertaining and yet disappointing.