From Joel and Ethan Coen, the creators of such films as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, comes a new comedy – Hail, Caesar! Set at a Los Angeles film studio in the 1950s, the main character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who has the difficult, time-consuming job of being Head of Production and managing the images of the studio’s actors. One of these actors is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Hail, Caesar!, an upcoming big budget picture based around ancient Rome and the life of Christ. Unfortunately, Baird is kidnapped and held to ransom by a cell of communist writers – and that’s just the biggest of Eddie’s problems.
The film uses several different comedic approaches, the chief one being a satire on the Hollywood machine, how it thinks in terms of image and maintains control over its actors. This is conveyed in blatant and exaggerated ways, like trying to stick simple Western actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into an artistic piece where he sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of acting ability. There were some moments that I really liked, such as when Eddie meets some religious representatives to discuss if Hail, Caesar! might be seen as offensive to any faiths. I also liked the times when the film played up the drama of what was going on, only to then undermine it: for example, Baird’s kidnappers appear intimidating as their feet are shown striding into the safehouse – until we then see them being hassled by a small dog and having finger sandwiches prepared for them. The occasional narration by Michael Gambon, which generally contrasts in terms of drama and dignity with what’s happening onscreen, also works well. But there are other scenes that don’t work, and not much that’s laugh-out-loud funny.
The events surrounding Baird’s kidnapping are what you’d call the main plot of the film – but the whole thing meanders so much through various subplots involving Eddie and the stars he has to deal with, that it becomes bewildering. Some of these other scenes – particularly an extended song-and-dance number involving Channing Tatum and some sailor buddies – feel pretty pointless, perhaps deliberately so. There are even whole characters that don’t really need to be there, like the journalist sisters both played by Tilda Swinton. In this regard, it’s quite similar to The Big Lebowski, which also went all over the place until you had to grasp for a cohesive story – but in that film, it made sense because that was how the main character saw the world. Here, I don’t know what the point is. Any attempts by the characters themselves to convey the message that Hollywood is more interested in making money than art, aren’t truly taken seriously within the film. Our protagonist, Eddie, isn’t interested in such ideas: he just wants to do his job.
With regards to the actors, George Clooney is the highlight as Baird Whitlock: off-screen, he’s a bit of an idiot, and on-screen, he’s dramatic in a funny way without being completely overblown (again, these scenes are often undermined as he flubs his lines). Alden Ehrenreich is also amusing and likeable as Hobie Doyle, and Ralph Fiennes does a good job with limited screentime as the cultured director trying to get an appropriate performance out of him.
Hail, Caesar! has many moments of clever and worthwhile comedy, but is inconsistent in terms of humour, and its scattered structural approach doesn’t really work – still, a cinema experience that’s more good than bad. Rating: 3/5.