Critic’s Corner: Coen Bros. (Might Have) Failed

There is no doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen will go down in the annals of film history as two of the greatest directors of all time and most certainly the most innovative filmmaking duo in recent memory. But for every masterpiece a director crafts, there must be at least one film that falls short of expectations—“Almost Famous” had “Aloha” and “Schindler’s List” had “War Horse.” The Coen Brothers have produced a litany of masterful works ranging from “Fargo,” to “Raising Arizona” to “No Country for Old Men” and most recently “Inside Llewyn Davis.” These are films that push the boundaries of filmmaking, re-imagine classic ideas and help extend the art form into a new domain. Unfortunately they might have also just found their dud, but there’s a chance it’s
actually brilliant.

I’m hesitant to call “Hail, Caesar!” a complete a dud, because, like “A Serious Man,” the movie is an oddity and these kinds of films sometimes it needs a while to take hold. “A Serious Man” was squished in between “Burn After Reading” and “True Grit,” both of which are superb movies that, in many ways, greatly overshadow the weaker, more obscure middle child. In defense of “Hail, Caesar!” it comes following their soul-baring “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which then produced sky high expectations for what was to come next. When the Coen Brothers succeed, they do so magnificently; when they fail, it isn’t that the film is bad, it just is simply disappointing in comparison to their other works.

So comes “Hail, Caesar!,” a love letter to 1950s Hollywood complete with wonderfully choreographed musical numbers, glamorous movie premieres and nods to the prevalent genres at the time—most notably the Biblical epic, which serves as the focal point of the film. A sly nod to “Ben-Hur,” “Hail Caesar!” gets its title from the film-within-a-film starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman general in the time of Jesus. Working to keep everything in line is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer who is constantly hushing gossip columnists, arranging productions, dealing with divas and ensuring nobody goes missing.

Well, someone goes missing—Baird Whitlock gets kidnapped by a mysterious organization—and you’d think that would be the primary focus for the rest of the film, but it isn’t. A film like this reminds me why trailers are becoming exceedingly misleading; it was advertised that the entire film revolves around Baird’s kidnapping. In actuality, it serves as only a minor plot point in the grand scheme of things. The payoff for the group is—debatably—underwhelming, producing more of a resounding, “Huh?” than a revelatory, “Ohhhh,” in the audience.

It might be that the Coen Brothers simply bit off more than they could chew, given the large scale of the film. With a cast that includes Brolin, Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Alison Pill, Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand, most of the characters hardly get one line. Don’t get me wrong—they’re all fine, but in the realm of Coen Brothers movies, this is unheard of, especially after the intimate “Inside Llewyn Davis” in which the characters feel real and believable. In this case, there is not enough development of character for the audience to grow a connection. I will say that Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Western star Hobie Doyle, does steal the show with a humorous and memorable performance, especially the scene where he lassos spaghetti in an almost Charlie Chaplin-esque manner.

Coming out of “Hail, Caesar!,” I felt a similar reaction to when I first saw “A Serious Man,” which had a late onset popularity still confounds me. It just did not sit well; it lacked the regular cohesion of a Coen Brothers film—they usually feel weird but wind up making some sort of sense. Sometimes the Coen Brothers are too cryptic and “out there” for their own good—I mean, Communist submarines? What’s that about?

Is “Hail, Caesar!” a bad film? No—in terms of filmmaking, it actually is quite well done; though it is disappointing to say the least. Even one of the Coen Brother’s more well-known hits, “The Big Lebowski,” wasn’t released to heavenly praise, but rather tepid confusion. So it may be—with time—that “Hail, Caesar!” finds itself a cult following like that of The Dude. But for now, I’ll just scratch my head and see what time does to it—it may end up go down as one of their greats, just not for me.

Scott may be reached at [email protected]