Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” underwhelms

The new Coen Brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar!” opened Friday. PHOTO BY SARAH SILBIGER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
The new Coen Brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar!” opened Friday. PHOTO BY SARAH SILBIGER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

With their vast and well-established oeuvre spanning several genres, the Coen Brothers are considered two of the most diverse writers, directors and producers of the film industry. After writing a film about a U.S. Olympian and war hero in “Unbroken” and another about spy negotiations during the Cold War in “Bridge of Spies,” the Coens return to producing and directing with “Hail, Caesar!”

“Hail, Caesar!” is about films themselves and the industry surrounding them, framed within the historical context of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers accused and persecuted by the government in the mid-20th century for supposedly hiding communist ideas in film scripts.

With an idea like this backing the movie, it seems like “Hail, Caesar!” would be another notch in the Coen Brothers’ award-winning belt, but the end result only slightly feels like a stab in the back to the Coens’ careers so far.

“Hail, Caesar!” can best be described as a Coen film with shades of Wes Anderson. The movie uses the soft, pastel palette we’ve come to associate with Anderson’s whimsical films, but the association also holds true in the sense that the story flows less like “The Big Lebowski” and more like “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” in tone and pace.

This isn’t to say that “Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t have the usual trappings of a Coen Brothers’ film. This time around, the misanthropic, generally unsympathetic character the audience is supposed to love to hate is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood manager up to his neck in the scandals and gossip surrounding the stars of his studio.

Mannix’s hands are full with three huge problems: his boss’ attempts to turn Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a “singing cowboy” type of actor, into a major movie star; actress DeeAnna Moran’s (Scarlett Johansson) struggle with shaking off a pregnancy scandal; and the central driving force of the plot, the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Mannix’s latest feature, by a mysterious group calling themselves “The Future.”

Therein lies the biggest problem with the plot — despite all the whimsy, the stern-sounding narrator and the typical trademarks of what can be considered the “Hollywood indie” genre (again, think of directors like the Coens and Anderson, or movies like “Little Miss Sunshine”), there are way too many plots for the movie to make some sort of sense.

Even though it’s obvious to the viewer that all of these separate plots will have some sort of connection in the end, around halfway through the film, I’d forgive the viewer for honestly not caring for about half the characters and the struggles they go through.

I even almost forgot to mention that on top of those three plotlines, there are several other smaller plot lines involving Hobie, “The Future” and two twin reporters (Tilda Swinton), among many, many others.

The connections made between the plots can be described as flimsy at best, shoddy at worst. The reveal of the main antagonist, although impressive and kind of funny, felt sort of thrown in at the last minute. The conclusion only serves as a return to the status quo with barely any development for any of the characters.

The casting and acting more than compensates for the plot ordeal, however. Brolin’s Mannix is just the right amount of smarmy and incorrigible for viewers to not necessarily root for, but still somehow like. Johansson is hilarious as the no-nonsense, fast-talking DeeAnna, in a role thankfully unlike many of her previous ones.

Ehrenreich, who had done a few minor roles in two Francis Ford Coppola movies and “Blue Jasmine,” could quite possibly be considered the breakout actor of the film as the inept, but not ingenuous Hobie. Clooney rounds out the main characters with his delightfully Charlton Heston-esque Baird.

There are even star-studded cameos from the likes of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes. The comedy is hilarious despite the plot — special mentions go to a certain scene in which a rabbi, a priest, a minister and a Greek Orthodox priest are discussing how Jesus is represented in the film within a film, as well as to the perfect homage to the old Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance movies performed, surprisingly, by Channing Tatum.

All in all, “Hail Caesar!” is a bit iffy when compared to the Coens’ other films, but an okay movie when thought of on its own, despite the various confusing, loose-ended plots.

Even though it may not be the best Coen Brothers movie, “Hail, Caesar!” is one of the best in theaters during this slow winter movie season.

Hail, Caesar!” is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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