Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail Caesar! is constructed in the image of a great ensemble comedy, but in execution it’s an oddly fleeting one. Familiar face after familiar face drifts idly by the camera lens, and their collective efforts earn their fair share of laughs, but in lopsided fashion. Some players, the audience will remember the next day when they describe this, the Coen’s 17th feature to friends as a would-be crowd pleaser that doesn’t quite gel as it might. Others will be forgotten by next morning, and it would be hard to blame them.
I can’t help but at least mention how misleading the TV campaign for this film has been, which will no doubt rub some viewers the wrong way. Take a look at this 30-second TV spot.
It’s a short spot that paints a very clear picture: This is a madcap comedy about kidnapped movie star George Clooney, and “only Hollywood’s biggest names can solve the mystery.” It’s clearly up to Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes and Jonah Hill to get to the bottom of things—there’s even a bit of dialog from Josh Brolin telling them “We need you all to look for him.” Sounds like a great time down at the ‘ole movie palace, does it not?
Except wait, no, none of that is accurate. The central storyline actually follows Brolin’s character, studio fixer Eddie Mannix. Of the other actors mentioned above, only Tatum is of any real importance, and Clooney essentially functions as a human MacGuffin. Johansson’s role is more limited in scope than Black Widow’s in either Avengers film, and guess what—you just saw Jonah Hill’s one and only scene in Hail Caesar! You might as well have Christopher “Remember when I was Raiden in Mortal Kombat?” Lambert on the poster instead, given that he has significantly more lines.
It’s not even that the appearances by Johansson, Hill and others such as Frances McDormand don’t work, but the fact that they’re almost entirely divorced from the rest of the goings-on that makes them feel so inconsequential. In a 100-minute film that flies by, we’re presented with a bevy of characters, but little apparent attempt to develop them or involve them in the plot. Contrasted with a film such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which had such a keen understanding of each of its three leads, Hail Caesar! feels directionless. It seems like a story that could have been far tighter if it hadn’t been consumed by trying to cram in as many famous faces as possible.
This is a shame, because despite everything I’ve just written, much of the humor actually works. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as an entitled and refined director of stuffy period piece dramas, and Tilda Swinton nails a dual comedic role as bickering gossip columnist sisters. The biggest surprise is Alden Ehrenreich, playing a somewhat dimwitted cowpoke star of cheap Westerns who the audience is first invited to dismiss before coming to identify with. The more tightly the narrative hinges on him, the closer it comes to righting the ship.
Also wonderful is Tatum, interestingly enough, playing a Gene Kelly-like hoofer in budget musicals. Hail Caesar! presents many genre parodies, most of them so far removed into joke territory that anything affectionate or genuine is lost, but Tatum’s one extended musical sequence is the moment the film is simultaneously most sincere and most alive, and Tatum wears it well. The self-aware casting, which almost feels Magic Mike-inspired, fits him like a glove—far better than the out-of-place turn in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Hail Caesar! is blandly enjoyable in spurts, based on the strength of key performances, but it wouldn’t take much to make it that much better. If names on a poster translated directly into film quality, it would already be 2016’s best comedy. As is, it feels like the depth of the Coen Bros rolodex of friends exceeding the scope of their script.
Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson
Release Date: Feb. 5, 2016
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.