This was one of the films I most looked forward to seeing in 2016; after seeing it, I felt only the pang of unmet expectations. It’s not a technically bad movie, I was delighted by its whimsical and meta premise, and laughed at many of the jokes; I was having a good time. Then it ended. My first thought was “huh” and then “whelp” thanks to its ultimately unsatisfying plot. I actually saw this movie twice, and had the same experience both times. To reply to the gentleman who felt the need to interrupt my post-film conversation to explain to me that I was mistaken, that Coen brothers movies aren’t supposed to have a point, it’s not just that this film doesn’t have a point, but it also lacks tension, a sense of urgency, or any investment in or development of the characters.
The general premise of the film is that a movie producer is considering leaving the hectic, but familiar career to work for an airline company. While grappling with this decision, he is tasked with rounding up starlets, explaining pregnancies, dealing with gossip columnists, and finding a kidnapped actor. It’s a love letter to the film industry, something many filmmakers do at some point in their careers, like Tarintino’s recent Hateful Eight. Hail, Caesar! Is a lot of fun, and a great parody of the industry and its artiface. Expectations are shattered, we see the inner workings of film; however, at times it seems like a series of vaguely related vignettes, jumping between sets, famous actors, and characters.
The acting is done well; it feels like the central thread of this film, keeping it from fraying at the edges, yet the heavy saturation of talent into ultimately frivolous roles diminished the effect. This rapid fire cast of well-known actors zips by without much effect. Some are charming, others annoying, yet every character, no matter how insignificant, is a joy to watch. It’s a unique position, to love the portrayal of the characters, but not care about the characters they play. In a metatextual way, one could argue that this star-studded cast is meant to replicate attachment to the characters by featuring well loved actors, but perhaps this is giving the movie too much credit.
Hail, Caesar! is at its most interesting when it delves into the representation and commentary on the film industry. Some of my favorite scenes took place on a sound stage, in which an entire movie crew is seen working in the background. This shatters the illusion of the nesting doll movies that speckle this film, but also invites the audience to imagine all of this taking place within a larger sound stage, with even more cranes, cameras, microphones, and the Coen brothers directing the action. Later in the movie, characters discuss the place film occupies in the context of society, and George Clooney’s character calls them panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, to keep the masses content with entertainment. This film was fluff. Is that a bad thing? Is there anything wrong with simply being entertained, or does film need to elevate the audience? I tend to prefer the latter, but I still really enjoy films like Deadpool. This question echoes my own distaste for this film. I yearned for something more, but the movie doesn’t owe anything to me, and perhaps I shouldn’t have expected anything but pleasant escapism.
Overall, I’d still only give the film a 6/10. It’s worth a watch, but wait until it’s on Netflix, don’t see it in theaters. For anyone else who has seen it, I welcome a discussion in the comments below.