Coen brothers find Christ, communism in new period piece

The most consistent thing the movie does to make fun of the era is in its special effects. Hail, Caesar! mixes modern cameras with ’50s era visual effects, with extensive use of rear-screen projection and Roman armor that looks clearly plastic with 21st century color correction. Like the movie itself, the look is unique, but not necessarily pleasant. Photos courtesy Universal Pictures.

Every great filmmaker eventually makes a movie about moviemaking, and that movie is always kind of weird. The Coen brothers are kind of weird anyway, so it follows that Hail, Caesar! would be a doubly weird movie.

It’s not a doubly weird movie. It’s weirder than that. The affect was multiplicative, not additive. It’s really, really weird is what I’m saying.

The movie follows a few days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) — the movie is entirely fiction, but Mannix was a real person — a fixer, a Hollywood handyman who solves industry problems before they make it to the gossip columns. He gets quite a big one when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Kirk Douglas/Carlton Heston parody and star of the eponymous Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, is kidnapped from the set by an organization calling itself The Future. Mannix also arranges the rise of singing cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), graduating from light-hearted Westerns to a drama by esteemed director Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes) and the marriage of DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams parody whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy jeopardizes her public image.

Hail, Caesar! is a bit like an iceberg. Looking at it, you know there’s a lot more beneath the surface, but that doesn’t necessarily make what you can see any more impressive of a sight. This isn’t a movie you can just watch once and get. Hail, Caesar! is intensely focused on its religious, political and parody themes, and attaining full value from the film would require several viewings cross-referenced with symbolism from the Coens’ other work, much of which is also heavily religious. Once this is on home theater and streaming services that’ll be possible, but for now, all that can really be analyzed is the tip of the iceberg.

And if you think that’s an elaborate way of saying “wait till it comes out on DVD,” you’re exactly right.

This is the second time Jonah Hill’s heavily advertised role has ended up being a single-scene cameo, and he’s not the only one. Fiennes and Francis McDormand also appear in just a single scene, and Tatum and Johansson get a whopping two scenes each. Maybe this is a jab at the star-power focus of the Golden Age? Whatever it is, it’s deceptive.

Hail, Caesar! is a parody of the Hollywood golden age that is meant to mock nostalgia for that age. The studios were run like a crime family back then, even employing mob-style cleaners — Mannix is the perfect example — and produced movies like Ben Hurr and Spartacus, epic sagas of the time that feel like dinosaurs just 60 years later. If the goal of the movie was to make fun of this era, its comedy falls on deaf ears when a viewer already recognizes this as one of the darker times in filmmaking history. Except for these epics, the movies Hail, Caesar! mocks directly have largely fallen out of the public consciousness anyway because, compared to the plot-driven stories and story-based genres that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, they were never that great.

The concrete plot scenes are slowly paced and feature the kind of slowly building awkwardness-driven comedy that risks boredom. The best execution of this style is the Coens’ own Burn After Reading, but Hail, Caesar! doesn’t get a lot of laughs outside of its meta content. Adding to this slow feel is a distinct lack of music. The end result is a scant 100 minute movie that feels like it’s on the other side of 120.

The scenes that are supposed to make fun of the golden-age genres — the extended Busby Berkeley Number and Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) tap-dancing scene — don’t. They just showcase how lame they are in a modern context. That may have been the point, but if the point of a movie is to be lame in some spots, who would go see it?

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Just stop looking at the helicopter. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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