There’s probably nothing that gets me to a theater faster than a new Coen brothers film. No other director(s) working today – not Tarantino, not either Anderson, no one – makes films like the Coen brothers, and that goes double these days, as the brothers have moved to a more idiosyncratic phase of their careers – and that’s saying something. After all, this is the team that kicked off their career with the moody neo-noir Blood Simple, moved to the broad comedy Raising Arizona, then made a gangster picture (Miller’s Crossing)…and so on. But these days, their films have gotten even odder and harder to pigeonhole, which makes them, in many ways, all the more satisfying. Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading…there’s not a one that doesn’t rank among their best to me, and as the brothers have moved into more personal, less rigidly defined territory, I’ve been right there with them.
So, when you see that I (originally – I talked myself up by the time I finished this review) only gave Hail, Caesar! four stars, you might think, well, that seems low by your standards of the brothers. And maybe it does, but I’m mainly ranking Hail, Caesar! against other Coen brothers films. Put against just about anything else I’ve seen, it’s among the best; put against their recent output, it’s a little uneven, but no less joyful, funny, entertaining, and wonderfully odd.
Let me re-emphasize that “odd” part, for what it’s worth. Even by the Coens’ standards, Hail, Caesar! is pretty shaggy and loosely plotted. Orbiting around a studio fixer (played with deadpan brilliance by Josh Brolin), the film follows him as he deals with any number of situations, from the changing of a lead on a costume drama to a pregnant starlet, from a missing superstar to a tempting job offer. Meanwhile, there’s a conspiracy involving a political faction, a studio-mandated first date, and a few showpieces that allow the Coens to put on their own versions of Busby Berkeley or Gene Kelly numbers. And then, if the loose story isn’t enough, there’s the fact that the film ends up becoming an exploration of all kinds of things: faith, religion, communism, capitalism, the studio system – all of that and more.
So it’s really no surprise that Hail, Caesar! isn’t being super well-received by the public. (Last I heard, it was averaging a C- on CinemaScore, which measures audience responses to films.) It’s not a typical film; there’s not really one solid arc, the jokes are deadpan and more about the dialogue, the showpieces are spectacular but decidedly old-school, and the themes are pretty complex and surprisingly theological. And even as a fan, it all feels a bit thrown together at times, jumping around from bit to bit without much concern for coherence or structure.
But given how fun – and funny – the movie is, who really cares? No one writes dialogue like the Coens, and with Brolin and George Clooney – both of whom have worked with the brothers before – delivering it, the results are frequently uproarious. The surprise, though, is Alden Ehrenreich, who was completely new to me and about stole the movie from everyone else with his subdued, laconic performance as a Western star who’s being pushed up the studio ladder. His line deliveries are amazing, his physical presence a treat, and his comedic timing flawless. Really, though, the cast is uniformly excellent, as you’d imagine; given some of the names they’ve managed to get into the film (mostly for small parts), that’s no surprise, but the Coens use each and every actor to their utmost ability.
And then there’s just the magical wonder of the film. Channing Tatum’s tap dance number is a joy to watch unfold, however it was done; Scarlett Johansson’s swimming dance is astonishingly choreographed; the Western fight is a blast; and so on. There’s something wonderful about watching the Coens play in this studio world they’ve created, and you get the sense that Hail, Caesar! could almost be their own private anthology film, as they dabble in all sorts of genres just to see if they can do it. And the fact that they do it all while still bringing the wit and surprising depth that they’re known for? Just beautiful.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t really a mainstream film, and I’m not surprised that it’s not being received more warmly by a lot of folks. It’s a Coen brothers film, through and through, and if you’re not on their weird, idiosyncratic wavelength, it’s mainly going to bewilder and baffle you. But as a fan of the Coens, of classic films, of physical comedy, of great dialogue, of deadpan humor, and of just about everything else this film has to offer, I had a blast. But what else do you expect from the Coens?