Like Tarantino, I always feel like I’m missing something with the Coen Brothers. They are obviously masters of their craft and I thought I was in agreement with this after watching The Man Who Wasn’t There starring the terrific Billy Bob Thornton, but then after watching O Brother, Where Art thou? (a cinematic cure for insomnia) and No Country For Old Men (or No Film With Story Structure), I accepted the fact that I just don’t get the appeal of their films and that I am in the minority. However, with a nod and a wink towards my quest to revisit Tarantino films after watching the superb The Hateful Eight, I watched the Coens’ The Big Lebowski for the first time a few weeks ago and loved it, so I decided to give them a second chance, starting with Hail, Caesar!
The film is a mish-mash of plot threads, but, put simply, it is set in 1950s Hollywood and tells the fictional story of real-life “fixer” and film studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is trying to piece together what happened to actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), when he goes missing off the set of the latest Biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar! The Tale of the Christ”. He does this whilst also making sure that the other studio productions are running smoothly and also ensuring that the stars of Capitol Pictures are kept out of the gossip columns.
I liked this film, but it didn’t blow my socks off. Whilst the story is made up of different plots they do all piece together satisfactorily to make the jigsaw that is the final film fit flush, but it’s all a bit ho-hum. It teetered very closely to the edge of boredom as the Coens didn’t seem too bothered about making the individual elements of the script worth watching at all. You find yourself hoping that Mannix gets Whitlock back to the set, but you yearn for them to fully explore the stories and character arcs of the supporting cast as they seemed genuinely intriguing if they were written better, even if it does mean lengthening the film (I never thought I’d ever write that sentence!). It’s like the Coens were only focussed on getting the film finished and released, which is not like them at all. Their decision-making on the trailers for this film also comes under question as they gave away most of the best bits. The “would that it were so simple” scene that we have all now seen many, many times would have had me in stitches in the cinema but because it has been played to death in the promotion of this film it made me smile and no more, which is a shame as it is a fantastic example of how well the Coens can write.
What did keep my interest was the performances of the cast as none of them put a foot wrong. George Clooney is unrecognisable as a hapless actor trying to make intelligent comment on his situation and Josh Brolin, who is the closest this film has to a lead, puts in a sturdy performance that you would expect from an actor of his calibre (I wish he took over the Bruce Wayne/Batman role, but never mind). Channing Tatum also makes the most of his small role in the film, although his character could have played such a bigger and more influential part of the plot. He grows as an actor with each passing film, and you forget that his break through role was as a dancer in Step Up in 2006, which just makes his rise to stardom even more impressive. A nod also to Coen regular Frances McDormand, who almost steals the show with her performance as the editor of Capitol Pictures films. She is barely in it but she got the biggest laugh from me.
The film is also absolutely beautiful to watch. They really captured the feel of 1950s Hollywood and their depiction of the films that were produced in that era felt very authentic. The Biblical epic of “Hail, Caesar!” looked exactly like films such as The Robe and The Ten Commandments, and brought back strong memories of watching these types of films with my father every Easter. It’s a testament not only to the Coens’ skill at film-making but also to the talented cinematography of Roger Deakins, who brought such realism to the visuals and brought them to life with his creative and artistic flair. You just want to drink in every luscious frame of this film as a result, and it keeps you watching despite the story struggling to keep your attention. The production values as a whole are very strong, and you can see why it is being described as a love letter to the movie industry as they have captured it so well.
So, whilst the film didn’t rock my world, it didn’t discourage me from exploring and re-visiting the Coen Brothers’ back catalogue. It is a fine if not outstanding addition to their CV.
Oh, and a special thank you to the gentleman in row C who announced the title of the film to the whole auditorium when the title card appeared on the screen. For a moment there I thought I was watching Deadpool…