By Blake Nelson
The Coen Brothers have released another witty comedy in the same vein as “The Big Lebowski,” but the slacker mentality doesn’t necessarily translate to the Golden Age of cinema.
After coming off a string of contemplative movies including “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens are returning to their comedic side with “Hail, Caesar!,” a film set in Hollywood during the 1950s.
The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, the head of physical production at fictional Capital Studios. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Mannix is more of a babysitter for the studio, taking on responsibilities far beyond any job description could have foretold.
The viewer is treated to the Coens’ dry wit and humor throughout this 24-hour spanning film from the ensemble cast, most notably the short yet hilarious appearance of Channing Tatum’s, character Burt Gurney. The rest of the big-name actors, which include Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, do great with almost cameo-sized roles specifically written for them.
Many scenes do very well comedically with the 1950s film studio setting, playing on different tropes associated with the era — think cowboy movies and homoerotic sailor musicals. I was personally laughing openly at scenes that were specifically set in fabricated movie studios. The self-aware designs and characters that were presented in them worked perfectly.
Beyond the laughs the film seems disjointed and nearly directionless. Although the Coen Brothers are known for their incongruent storylines and non-ending resolutions, most notably with “The Big Lebowski,” this movie seems to build up to something with all the storylines neither converging nor fully climaxing in any way.
The main conflict involving George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, ends after building the whole film on a punchline, rather than wrapping things up. Possibly the Coens were trying to convey a sense of being out of the main character, Mannix’s, hands. However, this isn’t really shown to be fruitful, even in a Coen Brother-esque way.
Weighty themes are touched on in spite of the day in the lifestyle of the film, including religion and McCarthy era politics, but the film doesn’t seem to make statements on the topics; rather it seems to just present them to the viewer, neither criticizing the topics nor allowing for a cohesive statement on them. This is uncharacteristic for the Coens because almost all their films, again like “The Big Lebowski,” make statements through their non-statements.
Of course it isn’t really fair to compare every movie the Coens make with “The Big Lebowski,” their biggest success, but it is also the film that “Hail, Caesar!” is most related to tonally, which makes me wonder what the film was exactly going for.
This isn’t to say that “Hail, Caesar!” is bad by any means; it’s probably the best thing in theaters besides “The Revenant” and “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” The film could have been 20 to 30 minutes longer to explore the themes a little more, but by all means this is still a good film to see if you have the chance.
Blake Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweeted @b_e_nelson.