Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Watching Hail, Caesar! with the knowledge that the Coens’ next movie is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes Caesar look better, a kind of “learning to walk before you can run” aspect. In Buster Scruggs, which is pure anthology, there is no central character to whom everyone is tied, functioning as the fulcrum of the story. In Hail, Caesar!, a movie in which no character’s story would be more than one step away from any other character’s, even without the presence of its fulcrum Mannix (Brolin), there’s still an anthology feel. Perhaps the distance between the stories of Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) isn’t as great as one might expect, but the best moments still happen solo, and without the pressure of an ending bearing down on them. The wrap-ups of most of the subplots range from “a little unsatisfying” to “I’m down with that,” with most of them leaning towards the latter. Without a single real standout, though, the movie is bogged down a little bit in its goodness as opposed to something more like greatness.
This is true even of the movie’s actual ending, which in its own way feels as sudden on the first watch as the ending of First Reformed. It’s not that the movie couldn’t have been over. Mannix has had one last session in confession and said no to Lockheed, Baird Whitlock (Clooney) has been returned and de-radicalized, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has picked up an unusual but suitable father for her unborn bastard, Thora Thacker’s (Tilda Swinton) scoop about Whitlock has been neutered. The threads of the movie are basically tied up, especially as they involve him, but what’s striking about this ending is how abrupt it feels. It turns out that these past couple days were just days at the office for Mannix, who needs the thrill in concert with the manufactured moments produced on sound stages, who has rejected the greater pay and security at Lockheed because he is secretly as thirsty for the sordid adventure of stars as anyone reading fan magazines. It’s just that he gets it unfiltered, and he is control of every story he reads. What would the stakes have been at Lockheed? What would the benefits have been in getting home early enough to watch his son’s baseball game? Would they outweigh the tawdry, adorable pleasure of stage managing a marriage and slickly engineered adoption of DeeAnna’s own child by DeeAnna herself? Or the luminiscent, fervid joy of slapping the bejeezus out of a name brand star to snap him out of the minor Communist brainwashing some writers executed on the fellow? It’s effective, but the point has been made better earlier in the picture. Mannix has come home after his son has gone to bed, rapt with his surprising success at his Little League game. In a kitchenette smaller than one might expect for essential studio personnel, Mannix’s wife (Alison Pill) offers little of herself to her husband. He tells her that Lockheed’s made an offer, which she says sounds nice, but he knows better than she would; she’s at a distance from him, and he does not even look at her while he eats his reheated dinner. It is a more potent, telling scene than Mannix’s confession or, in the end, his smirk as he walks back to the office as ruler of this little dream factory hell.
The commies are the movie’s greatest stretch, although they are also the funniest concept. They are never really competitors for being the movie’s best scene or funniest one, but there is something a little hilarious about a grandiosely named communist cell (“The Future”) made up entirely of the kind of writers who were getting blacklisted in the ’40s and ’50s, deciding to kidnap the studio’s biggest star to bankroll…something…the Soviets are cooking up. Their attempts at teaching Baird the fundamentals of their thinking are mostly straightforward (albeit peppered with a number of commands for others in their argumentative little group to shut up), but it is Baird who gets a little cockeyed in the telling, so much so that he seems basically unimpressed with the fact that they’ve kidnapped him. He spends much of their opening lecture twirling little sandwiches on toothpicks; Clooney’s just-concussed vibe is a pretty good one for him, and Baird is a convincing idiot-king trapped in a room with literally Herbert Marcuse. The communists get probably the least satisfying ending to their subplot, and certainly the most grandiose. Ferried out in a rowboat by what appears to be the entire group of writers, Burt Gurney, secretly the financial backer for this group of reds, defects to the Soviet Union aboard a submarine parked off the California coast. (There’s a song-and-dance number called “No Dames!” that Tatum and a dozen extras perform which is, frankly, way better than it needed to be. This is true of all the spoofs that the Coens are pulling off in this movie, but the “No Dames!” sequence goes on longer than any of the others, is the most intricate, and gifts us another precious Channing Tatum dance sequence.) It’s got a decent enough punchline: they’ve brought Burt’s dog along, and when the dog leaps into his arms he drops the suitcase filled with the Baird Whitlock ransom into the ocean. I’ve seen people lose suitcases filled with money in Coen Brothers movies before, and this is not even the funniest way it’s been done. Baird, at least, gets a nice little ending. After Mannix sets him straight, we see him one last time on set for Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, where he’s delivering a stirring monologue…and flubs the last line. Never change, Baird.
DeeAnna Moran, it pains me to say, probably could have been cut from the movie and there would have been very little difference. While her unplanned pregnancy is one of Mannix’s more urgent problems, it is also the one that’s least available for humor. The way it’s dealt with is a sudden romance and wedding to a Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), who has done some truly ridiculous things for the studio and who gets some kind of payoff in the affection of DeeAnna. At first he offers to take the child and then give it back to her immediately; by the next morning, Mannix has received a phone call that she likes how steady the guy is and decided to get married. The subplot throws in some good lines about the notary’s strong forearms, the mermaid tail that DeeAnna refers to be a rather different, crasser name, and so on. It’s just not got much juice. This is the opposite problem from the movie’s most hilarious sequence, which has very little to do for the movie’s story but which is disproportionately hilarious. Mannix has four religious leaders—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish—in a conference room to talk about the best way to portray God on screen in this upcoming Biblical epic. If they were to head to a bar later, this would be the meat for a potentially very cramped joke. The joke works because Eddie Mannix is in the room with them, guiding the conversation along to the talking points; if he were capable of speaking three sentences without using some slangy ’50s lingo, this might not even be all that funny. “As for the religious aspect,” he says, “does the depiction of Christ Jesus cut the mustard?” (I’ll always maintain that it is significantly funnier to hear non-religious people try to pretend to speak in religious language than the opposite. Mannix’s original juxtaposition of Christ Jesus and mustard is living on the same sublime plane as Rex Mottram’s supposition about “raining spiritually.”) It’s a question that the Christians sort of hem and haw over, although the rabbi (Robert Picardo), as one would expect, has rather a different perspective. The priest wonders about just how God should appear in a movie, to which the rabbi replies, “God isn’t in the motion picture!” This is not a long scene, but it fires off zingers at 30 Rock speed and with significantly more heft in the landing.
The movie’s best subplot is, unfortunately, the one with the least of its actors in the lead role. Alden Ehrenreich is adequate as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy who the studio head has decided should star in a drawing room comedy, but all the charisma that everyone complained he didn’t have when he played Han Solo is missing here too. Hobie is supposed to be a complete loss as a leading man in a Noel Coward-esque story, and his missteps on the set are pretty funny. (The Coens really go for it in one sequence in which Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz, Lord of the Diction, tries to get Hobie to say “Would that it were so simple” in some dialect that did not come from Monument Valley. It’s special, but the punchline is so much better. When we finally see the take, Hobie’s got a different line that gets to the point a little quicker: “It’s complicated.”) It’s also a treat to watch him turn everything he can into a lasso, not excluding his spaghetti. In the end, though, there’s enough Ehrenreich on the screen that when he’s just sort of mumbling a drawl, it’s not enough to keep our attention with him. The young cowboy, whether he’s Ricky Nelson or Monty Clift or Jeffrey Hunter, has to have some kind of magnetism that keeps us interested. An upgrade on Ehrenreich might have been enough to bring Hail, Caesar! to a higher level.