Hail, Caesar! has been marketed as the Coen Brothers’ homecoming, as a return to their distinctive style of surreal and dark comedy that brought them such acclaim in The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Hollywood’s A-listers dominate the cast, which includes Clooney, Brolin, Johansson, Swinton, Fiennes and many more. It’s no wonder dedicated fans of the Coens have been eagerly awaiting its release. But despite overflowing with potential, there are many reasons why it doesn’t live up to the expectation.
Filmgoers will immediately identify this as a “Coen Brothers’ movie”, that oft-used but apt cliché, as it bears all the hallmarks of the Coenesque. Their screenplay, as ever, is brilliantly funny and believably real. This is enhanced again by their liberal use of reverse shots, allowing the viewer to feel present in all conversations, and faultless editing to maintain their distinctive rhythm. Their unique characters don’t fail to amuse, such as Fiennes’ thespian director Laurence Laurentz – channelling David Lean and Laurence Olivier – who is perhaps underused, or Johansson’s slick-talking New Yorker Deanna Morgan. The Coen brothers’ tradition of directing, writing, producing and editing their films position them as the closest thing to American auteurs – Hail, Caesar is no exception, and definitely showcases their characteristic style.
But while the Coens usually find success critically and commercially, their films bridging the gap between independent and mainstream audiences, Hail, Caesar is undoubtedly a film aimed primarily at cinephiles. It’s heavy use of cinematic in-jokes and self-references are at best rather self-indulgent, and at worst shroud the film’s enjoyment in exclusivity. Their use of lengthy dance and choreographed swimming scenes unnecessarily disrupt the narrative in an attempt to reference Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic dance sequences of the 1930s, as well as their own previous use of these in The Big Lebowski – only they fail to incorporate them as cleverly and it feels disjointed. The evocation of 1940s noir in the final third seems like an afterthought, out of step with the overall mood: the Coens appear only to be showing off their famous admiration for film noir.
Such admiration rises to adoration in their representation of Hollywood, the film being almost an ode to its Golden Age in the 1940s-50s. Light hearted mockery aside, Hail, Caesar views Hollywood with rose-tinted nostalgia, ignoring how stifling the studio system was for directors attempting even minimal artistic innovation. They get around this by basing the resurrected image more on how popular culture views Hollywood’s Golden Age than how it actually was; the underground Communism, the homosexual nepotism, the studio’s fear of tabloid scandal, all are borrowed from pop culture and portray the period as rather quaint. But perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as all the Coens’ films are profoundly indebted to the classical genres of Hollywood – such as their “stoner noir” The Big Lebowski, and neo-western No Country For Old Men to name just two. Their new release continues this trend, and while not being as clever or ambitious as their previous projects, it is undoubtedly a postmodern pastiche of deep affection, not a parody. Their reverence for classical Hollywood is measurable in the choice of protagonist, the studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix who, though he can’t quite explain why, proclaims the studio system “just feels right”.
As far as the comedy is concerned, the sharp dialogue certainly gained a few laughs. Yet one could sense the over-reliance on high profile actors. Tatum’s tap-dancing Burt Gurney, the Communist and alluded-to homosexual, was an unsuccessful attempt to extract comedy from a tired stereotype by casting a celebrity; Clooney’s gullible numbskull Baird Whitlock, the kidnapped Hollywood star, was funny primarily because it was Clooney, the usually smooth Nespresso man playing the fool. The narrative itself, which follows Mannix trying to ensure the smooth running of the studio, is rather half-baked – always seeming secondary to the Coen’s desire to resurrect Hollywood’s Golden Age – and leaves the viewer unsatisfied upon its resolution.
I must say that on a personal level I enjoyed the film; I was entertained, I laughed, and being a Coen Brothers fan I could understand enough of the cinematic self-references to feel like I was part of one big inside joke. But when I left the cinema I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, which I apparently shared with the audience based on the audible grumbles of complaint. I suspect die-hard cinephiles will feel their appetites for the Coenesque satisfied for a few years, but for me it felt like something was missing. It’s a fine line between self-referencing and self-indulgence, and I fear, this time, the Coens may have slipped over it.