I went to see Hail, Caesar on Tuesday night and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. It’s a great film that is not, when you get to the end, a great film. A confusing contradiction that makes perfect sense once you’ve seen it, because it does so much right that it’s vaguely disappointing when you get to the end and find yourself asking, “so, that’s it?”
It reminded a good deal of seeing Zoolander for the first time back in 2001. A whole lot of people love that film and regard it as a classic, but it drove me crazy. The plot is…slight. An excuse to hold together a whole bunch of comedy set-pieces that are, on their own, funny, but never add up to something bigger.
The difference, in this instance, is that I loved Hail, Caesar. It was exactly three scenes into the film before I knew I’d purchase a copy of it when it come out on DVD, because the spectacular performances, visuals, and comedic moments are worth revisiting.
There is so much this movie gets gloriously right. The Coen’s strengths are quirky characters, exceedingly well-composed imagery, and getting something phenomenal out of their actors.
The film plays to those strengths in scene after scene, particularly when it comes to the actors. There are an incredible array of performances throughout the film, from major parts like Alden Ehrenreich’s portrayal of Hobie Doyle (which is incredible) through to minor parts Scarlet Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin gossip columnists, a whole host of folks like Fisher Stevens and David Krumholtz playing writers, in a film, that I did not loathe as characters, and Robert Picardo in a bit part as a rabbi.
They also deploy Channing Tatum better than Channing Tatum has ever been deployed in film before, and armed with two scenes and a glorious kick-leap, he is one of my favourite parts.
Any other film with performances of this calibre would be hailed as brilliant.
What lets the movie down is the assemblage – the parts are better than the whole. It feels a bit disingenuous to criticise a move so deeply steeped in the style of 50s movies for relying heavily on set-pieces, but there is a central narrative line to the movie in the form of the major choice faced by Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix and its conclusion feels unearned.
It seems like it’s meant to be saying something about the power of movies, but it doesn’t quite come off.
The Coen Brothers have made all sorts of spectacular movies. Hail, Caesar isn’t one of them, but from a creative standpoint its actually the most interesting thing that they’ve made in years.
Also, its goddamn funny. Extremely goddamn funny.