Hail Caesar

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Hail Caesar review: however much you love the Coen Brothers, they are capable of making some truly awful movies.

I love the movies.  On a Saturday night I went to see the extraordinary Argentine drama The Clan in the Istanbul Film Festival, about a family from Buenos Aires who kidnap and murder people.  I’d have given it 10/10 but I had to leave the cinema half-way through, because a small bomb went off across town, and I missed the end.  Long story.

So on the Sunday night I went to the same cinema to see Hail Caesar, the latest movie from the Coen Brothers.

I’ve seen and enjoyed lots of Coen Brothers films.  Blood Simple.  Raising Arizona.  Miller’s Crossing.  Fargo.  The Big Lebowski.

Now you mention it I haven’t seen a really good Coen Brothers film since 1998.

I watched Bridge of Spies and found it good-looking but deadly boring. Where’s the dramatic tension?  Why should we care about the characters?  It had none of the characteristics – originality, surprise, joy, dark twists – which distinguished the early Coen Brothers productions.

The trouble is, I’m such an optimist I always think: “these guys have ploughed millions of dollars – tens, hundreds of millions – into making this movie.  They must have some basic idea of what they’re doing.  It’ll improve soon.”

I’m so naive.

So I approached Hail, Caesar with trepidation.  It has George Clooney in it, possibly Hollywood’s most boring actor.  The trailer makes it look terrible.  But it was on when I had a free night.

It was beyond awful.  Here are five reasons why:

(i) a good movie has a story (unless it is high art – Last Year at Marienbad et al).  Something happens; characters have to fight for their happiness; we care about the outcome.  In Hail, Caesar there is no story.  A guy spends a day in a studio dealing with caricatured problems, interacting with caricatured Hollywood types.  None of the problems matters – the most potentially serious, of Hollywood’s most boring actor being kidnapped, is at no point menacing, or interesting, and resolves itself without anyone having to do anything. It’s the yawn-o-matic in action again;

(ii) the movie sells itself to gullible reviewers as an affectionate look at Hollywood’s golden age.  We all like the idea of Hollywood’s golden age, right?  So we see lots of little scenes from imaginary movies being made on-set.  But without characters we care about, none of these is interesting, although the On the Town spoof with dancing sailors featuring Channing Tatum made me smile.  The Busby Berkeley pool pastiche with Scarlett Johansson? Nothing.  The Ben Hur  pastiche with the world’s most boring actor? Uninteresting. The singing cowboy sketch, or the scene where the singing cowboy is transplanted into an unsuitable high society movie; or the Russians are Coming pastiche with a Soviet submarine – I wouldn’t mind if these sketches were funny, but…

(iii) none of it is funny.  Not one scene worked for me apart from those sailors.  I would have loved to laugh.  Take the scene where the world’s most boring actor goes to watch some outtakes and a chain-smoking woman (not seen earlier or later) gets her scarf caught in the machine which is showing the movie.  She’s not funny.  He’s not funny.  The scene doesn’t advance the plot.  The scene of a rabbi and various priests discussing whether the film-within-a-film, Hail Caesar, will offend religious groups – utterly predictable.  The feuding twin columnists played by Tilda Swinton?  No funny lines.  It’s unfunnyness cubed;

(iv) if this was some little movie you didn’t expect much from, it might be charming.  The fact that a massive Hollywood budget has been lavished on megastars, big sets and the rest leaves you feeling cheated (see Prometheus);

(v) ditto the fact it’s the Coen Brothers.  They made Raising Arizona.  They made the utterly brilliant Fargo.  How can they have made a really bad movie?  Did I not get it?

That last point is the trap.  We all keep going back for more punishment because we enjoyed something the Coen Brothers did ages ago.  We long to be entertained.  We’re easy meat.  For more on this effect, see my review of the dismal Spectre: 5 reasons to miss it and 5 reasons you’ll see it.

So, sorry, all you true die-hard Coen Brothers fans out there.  Watching Hail Caesar is like watching your favourite sports team, which used to be great decades ago, performing poorly while you munch your lousy snack and resent the high ticket price you paid while the directors take home millions.  Your devotion isn’t being rewarded.  It’s being exploited.  The emperor is naked.

For: one good song and dance routine with Channing Tatum

Against: 100% boring and 200% unfunny.  Intolerable cruelty, indeed

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2 Responses

  1. Bridge of Spies really was a plod, wasn’t it? Tom Hanks could give George Clooney a run for his money as Hollywood’s most boring actor. The sort of bloke you wouldn’t want to get stuck next to on a plane.

    Looking back at Hollywood’s Golden Age is bound to invite unflattering comparisons. I’m working through Billy Wilder’s oeuvre; wonderful stuff, and true to life in its complexities and mixtures of motives and blending of fun, fear and a hundred other moods.

    1. Tom Hanks seems to have no prominent virtues except that he turns up for work on time and is a delight to work with if you’re a director. But I rate him slightly less likely to appear in turkeys than George Clooney. He has appeared in some good movies in recent memory – eg, recently, Captain Phillips or Apollo 13. Hang on. Apollo 13 came out in 1995.

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