If you’re looking for a strange, clever mix of comedy and drama in the Coen brothers’ latest film, you might be a little disappointed. “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to old Hollywood films, showcasing techniques, choreography and attitudes that haven’t seen the light of day since the Production Code. Mixed with the Coen brothers’ trademark sense of oddball character, this makes for an adventure that has a lot of fun with itself. However, it lacks the cleverness or dramatic heft that some of their other films, like “Fargo” or “The Big Lebowski,” have offered.
The film focuses on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, “No Country for Old Men”), head of production at the fictional Capital Pictures. He’s a busy man: he green lights and oversees every picture made, is being pressured into a new job with a weapons company — at the onset of World War II, no less — and on top of all that, he’s trying to quit smoking. Suddenly, as if to add insult to injury, the star of the upcoming Capital biblical epic “Hail, Ceasar!” (George Clooney, “The Men Who Stare At Goats”) is kidnapped by a mysterious group known simply by “The Future.”
Beyond that, it’s a set of wacky hijinks involving Mannix and the other strange characters in and around Hollywood. The storyline of the film feels like an afterthought. It’s as if the Coens thought of a lot of brilliant characters, hired a brilliant cinematographer, and still needed an excuse to throw them all together. The film is filled with anticlimaxes – not unlike “The Big Lebowski” – but unlike “Lebowski” the tone and characters of “Caesar” don’t mesh with that kind of storytelling.
Thankfully, like “Lebowski,” “Caesar” is more about tone and character than it is story. Every character is filled with comedic pizzazz, and they bounce off of each other admirably.
That’s to say nothing of the small vignettes shown throughout the film. Almost every character is introduced by whatever scene shoot they’re partaking in. They’re all filmed in such a precisely nostalgic way that you’d swear they were all older films if not for humorous characters playing them out. The fictional directors of photography in “Caesar” are masters of their craft, with great camera angles that make their films within a film feel larger than life. That cinematography also largely applies to the film itself. Through the camera work, the fictional Capital studio lot is grandiose in scale.
Combine those two aspects and you have a film that will put film buffs in straight-jackets with laughter. Anyone who’s had to deal with a prissy director or an actor who just can’t quite get a line right will find something to snark at. Because it’s filmed in an old style, “Caesar” feels like a humorous deconstruction of 1940s filmmaking – it jokes about a time when each take was valuable. The choreography in some of the fake musical numbers is fantastic, up there with the greats like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Those numbers are also a joke. They’re meant to humorously contrast with their actors’ true natures, and the finesse that goes into them makes those jokes and characters so much more effective.
It would be an incredible movie to talk about if there were, well, more to talk about. There’s wheat to “Caesar’s” chaff, but the stalk holding it up isn’t very strong. It’s less of a story and more of an excuse for the Coens to showcase old-timey characters and filmmaking techniques — characters and techniques that still stand the test of time, admittedly. If “Hail, Caesar” had as much storytelling chops as it had style and charisma, it’d stand with some of the Coens’ best work. As it stands, though, it’s still a really fun romp.
Film: “Hail, Caesar!”
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: Feb. 5, 2016