Directed (and written and produced) by Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coen Bros. have established their predilection to write and produce many different types and genres of films. And, as you might already know, they have been wildly successful at many, and then, not so much at others. “Hail Caesar” is a melange…no, a stew, no…a casserole…yes, definitely a casserole…consisting of Coen shtick, loving homage, beautiful photography, quirky performances and bizarre plot. The result is, as you can imagine, wildly uneven. But, I think I felt quite satiated when it was over. My screening companion did not. She went so far as to say it was bad. And therein lies the problem with reviewing Coen comedies. No matter what I say, you may get something completely different out of it than I did. Nonetheless, that’s the task I’ve given myself, so here goes:
The main concern I had was with the script…specifically, the plot structure. It’s meandering, at best….sophomoric at worst. And, as with “Leboswski”, this film is about the characters, so the plot mainly acts as a very oddly constructed bridge to get us from one crazy character sketch to the next. As a result, some of the comedy suffers, since the stakes never feel high enough to ground it. That means “Hudsucker Proxy” remains their only stylized/period comedy that manages to bring both the stake and the crazy.
Also, the Coen’s missed the opportunity to create a world as uncomfortable, unknowable, and dazzlingly cinematic as Hudsucker Industries. It feels like that’s what they were going for, but it’s just slightly safer, so you never really get taken on that roller coaster ride of discomfort that they do so well when it works (“Hudsucker”, “Serious Man”, “Fargo”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”).
THAT SAID (and here comes the good stuff), the scene work is fantastic. There is a theological discussion about the cinematic representation of Jesus that is kinda genius. Every behind the scenes look, or movie-within-the-movie, has moments of comedy gold, which counts for over two-thirds of the film! There is a ten-minute dance number that is absolutely worth the price of admission. The Cowboy scenes are great. The drawing room romance has some classic Coen banter. And Clooney, as Charlton Heston, has a couple great, great moments. There is even an Esther Williams send-up that takes you back to the dream sequence of “Leboswki”. And all of it is made more enjoyable thanks to Roger Deakins, who, as you would imagine, has photographed this world to perfection.
As for the performances, most are really fun, especially Tilda Swinton, Josh Brolin and Channing Tatum (holy crap!). But the real standout is an actor I had never heard of, named Alden Ehrenreich. As the cowboy matinee idol, Ehrenreich has two or three of the best scenes in the film. But, with the exception of Scarlett Johansson, who is never allowed to escape charicature, the cast is uniformly hilarious…and you will find your own moments to recall as high points.
Finally, the score. Carter Burwell has had a very busy year, scoring “Mr. Holmes”, “Carol”, “Legend”, “Anomalisa”, and the “The Finest Hours”. But he has always been at his cinematic best scoring Coen films. And this score is no exception, AND a critical piece of the film’s world. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Miller’s Crossing” or “Hudsucker”, falling as those scores do in the lower half of my Top 25 All-Time list, but it’s not all that far away, either.
When the film ended, I turned to my friend and said, “You know, I didn’t appreciate ‘Lebowski’ when I first watched it, but now it’s an all-time favorite. I have a feeling this might be one of those.” Yup. This is probably going to be one of those…and I know this to be so, because not twenty four hours later, I’m already remembering liking “Hail Caesar” more than I did when the lights came up.
NOTE: This trailer gives away more than I would, but it is MUCH more representative of the film than the previous trailer or commercials…