Sometimes Coen Brothers movie are great, like Raising Arizona, Fargo and Miller’s Crossing. Sometimes they’re like listening to a modern jazz quartet. The musicians are really talented and they’re aces at their instruments, but the music still sounds like shit. Because it’s jazz. A bunch of dudes are so into their solos that they can’t step outside the moment, beyond their self-perceived genius, and see what an awful racket it makes. Hail, Caesar is modern jazz. There’s plenty of virtuosity on display, but too much of it is for its own sake.
Hail, Caesar is supposed to be a tribute to/indictment of Hollywood’s postwar studio system, the Technicolor dream factory. I say “supposed to” because supposed is all I got. I didn’t actually feel any sting or any love. The movie is too far up someone’s ass, too much about solos and vignettes to have a coherent point or message.
In Hail, Caesar, famous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of those pillars of the studio system like a Gable, Bogart or Stewart. He gets kidnapped mid-production on a Roman opus, forcing the studio honcho Edie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to scramble to recover him before the press gets wind and the studio wastes money on an idled production. It’s 1951, so of course Whitlock has been kidnapped by communists, almost all of them fey screenwriters who sit around a beach house eating watercress sandwiches and discuss with extreme punditry how communism can better serve them.
The kidnapping could be a launching pad for a comic caper: pseudo-intellectual commies versus the studio and its no-nonsense chief, who have the resources to realize any vision. Hail, Caesar isn’t a caper; the Coens won't stoop to storytelling. Whitlock is returned without little fuss, and by the time he is his disappearance is just another trumpet solo among the many.
The movie has another thread of a theme, and it’s as thin as a thread. That is, the movies are every bit as important as America’s heavier, more tangible products. Mannix, the capable caesar keeps the Capitol Pictures empire from crumbling. He watches dailies, makes casting changes, rescues wayward starlets late at night, gets nasty rumors out of the papers and plays matchmaker for his wards. He’s offered a job with a defense contractor that makes tangible objects, weapons that can reshape the world. It would be more money and security with less work and babysitting. Mannix must decide whether to leave the frivolous world of show business and its quickly frivolous products.
He doesn’t. That’s not a spoiler for two reasons. The first one is Hail, Caesar is a fucking movie. People who make movies don’t think their jobs are frivolous, they believe it’s God damn serious business and they delight in reinforcing their own importance. Why else would they hand themselves all those golden dildos every year? The second reason is, how can giving away the ending be a spoiler if it’s as inconsequential as this is?
Hail, Caesar’s plotting and theme are about as present as a sixth-year senior at a technical high school. The movie is mostly the equivalent of open mic night at a jazz club, a long string of jazz solos where assholes hijack the melody to show off. Those solos can be impressive for a few minutes, but they don’t add up to shit. There’s a five-minute song and dance routine by a bunch of guys dressed as sailors that has a cheap homoerotic wink in it, a corny western ballad about the lazy moon and an Esther Williams water ballet routine. They all go on too long and ultimately mean nothing to the story.
Hail, Caesar looks great, all saturated colors and period details. There are massive statues and monuments in a sand and sandals epic about a repentant emperor. A western movie star at some nightclub lassoing his date’s finger with a strand of spaghetti. Clandestine meetings in swank Chinese restaurants with huge fish tanks and umbrella drinks. The problem is that these are scenes suggesting movies I’d rather see, movies from an era with great stories. The time period gave us Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, African Queen, High Noon, Strangers on a Train, The Wages of Fear, An American in Paris, The Asphalt Jungle, Harvey and In a Lonely Place, just to name a few. All of these say a lot through a story and characters an audience will give a shit about. Hail, Caesar is none of them.
I like stories. I like investing myself in characters that I can like, be bemused by, or hate. I like when stories tell me what they do to the land, each other and themselves. There are about a billion clever ways to do this, maybe more. The Coens don’t. They are post-storytelling. Their movies almost always are just as interested in telling us they are movies as they are in telling us stories. This is a Technicolor movie about Technicolor movies, and the Coens never let us get lost inside it. In one scene Mannix stands on one of his studio’s soundstage with a massive fake sunrise in the background. In the next, a character stands on a Russian sub in front of what’s clearly another massive fake sky. We get it, Coens, it’s all fake. But we paid to pretend, however briefly, that it isn’t.
Hail, Caesar is also a navel gazer. At no time does it show the public, the consumers of all this art, and its impact on them. How do you make the point that movies are important without ever showing who they’re for? It’s almost like a guy who’s convinced he’s the world’s best jazz vibraphonist, but he only plays alone in his bathroom.
Two Fingers for Hail, Caesar. Great solos, lousy music. The world needs Johnny Hodges and less of this.