Review: ‘Hail Caesar’ is scattered misstep by often masterful Coens

July 22, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Hail Caesar' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Film critics never enjoy panning a movie by filmmakers they adore.

But the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar,” while brilliant in spurts, is far too manic for its own good.

Wait. Did those words just leave this keyboard? How can there be a movie by the genius Coen Brothers, dripping with nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age, that even references Carlotta Valdez from Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo” (1958), that somehow fails to capture the imagination?

The answer is that too much of a good thing is never a good thing, especially when it’s all over the place. The film is a gushing fire hydrant of creativity, an unstoppable torrent of ideas coming at us so rapidly that we’re unable to swallow it, thus sending us out of the theater somehow still thirsty.

Don’t get it twisted, “Hail Caesar” is never less than amusing, and there are indeed hilarious pieces. But the overall sum of these parts is so scattered that the whole can never maintain momentum, spoiling a promising premise with tangents that pull focus from the characters we should care about.

The film follows 1950s Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he bounces around the studio lot of the fictional Capitol Pictures putting out fires during the filming of the latest prestige picture, a “Ben-Hur” style Biblical epic titled “Hail Caesar.” During the height of production, the film’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by mysterious captors and held for ransom.

Making matters worse, Whitlock’s lasso-happy replacement Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) can’t act worth a lick, while diva DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) reveals an unexpected pregnancy. With millions of dollars at stake and the studio’s very reputation on the line, will Mannix panic?

Such a premise had us movie buffs salivating at the possibilities of the Coens exposing Hollywood with the satire of Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992) or spoofing sword-and-sandal epics with the hilarity of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (1979) or Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part 1” (1981).

At times, such studio cynicism works perfectly with the Coens’ brand of quirky charm, as Clooney wakes up on a lawn chair in a Roman soldier costume, only to have a chance encounter with a less-than-impressed maid with a vacuum. “You’re one of the movie guys,” she says with an eye roll, to which we want to point at her vacuum and quote The Dude: “The rug really ties the room together.”

There are other individual moments that are undeniably hilarious. Frances McDormand’s chain-smoking editor is a hoot splicing film with klutzy determination, while Tilda Swinton shines as a pair of Hedda Hopper gossip columnists who just happen to be identical twins, much to Brolin’s confusion.

Most hilarious is Ralph Fiennes’ director trying to get Ehrenreich’s simpleton to deliver eloquent dialogue during a swanky party scene. As he struggles to say the line, “Would that it were so simple,” you’ll recall Jean Hagen’s “I can’t stan’ ’em” in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). After “Grand Budapest,” Fiennes seems to have found his comic sweet spot decades after his horrific “Schindler” villain.

Unfortunately, funny individual pieces don’t make a great whole. Far too much of the movie feels indulgent, as if the Coen Brothers had a bunch of Old Hollywood bits they wanted to scratch off their bucket list: a Busby Berkeley waterfall like “Footlight Parade” (1933), a Gene Kelly sailor tap-dance like “On the Town” (1949) and a Dean Martin strumming cowboy song like “Rio Bravo” (1959).

These big showstopping numbers would be great in a vacuum — isolated on a variety show — but littered among this story, they distract us from the hero’s goals and keep our main characters off screen for far too long. Unlike an Astaire-Rogers musical where the protagonists are involved in almost every song-and-dance number, “Caesar” heaves its numbers solely on the supporting cast.

By the time the main characters, Brolin and Clooney, reappear on screen, we forget where they are in their respective journeys because we’ve spent so much time splashing around in waterfalls, dancing on bar tops and howling at moons over a western skies. Where are we again in the story? Guaranteed you’ll ask yourself this more than once after you finish grinning at the various charming sideshows.

Granted, not every single thing needs to be answered. I’m cool with the ransom money becoming a MacGuffin as we’ve come to expect from such briefcases in the hands of Lundegaards and Chigurhs. But those films were about something else: “There’s more to life than a little money” or “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.” “Hail Caesar” flirts with vague notions of labor vs. management in the Hollywood studio system, but it doesn’t devote the necessary time to sell it.

By the time a Russian submarine emerges, you’ll understand why “Hail Caesar” was never in the “Hunt for Award Season October” but rather released amid the February leftovers. Perhaps the Coens were still in the Cold War mindset of their Oscar-nominated script for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (2015), but I honestly laughed more during “Trumbo.” The arrival of the Soviet sub plays as purely ridiculous, as if the Coens’ worst angels mated with the excesses of Wes Anderson.

It’s in this moment you’ll echo John Goodman, “Over the line! Mark it a zero!” But we won’t go that far; we’ll mark it a “7.” That is to say “Hail Caesar” is a “C+” effort on a career report card of “A+” material like “Fargo” (1996), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “A” efforts like “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), “Barton Fink” (1991) and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000) and “A-” stuff like “Blood Simple” (1984), “Raising Arizona” (1987) and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013).

If only great filmmakers always equated to great movies.

Would that it were so simple.

2-and-half-stars

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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