I walked into the movie theater wanting to like "Hail, Caesar," the latest offering from Ethan and Joel Coen, those talented brothers who gave us "Raising Arizona," "Blood Simple," "Barton Fink," "Fargo," and "No Country for Old Men," among many others. Over the years, I've found that some of their films work wonderfully, while others don't quite hit the mark. This one is hit and miss, and for me a miss is as good as a mile I'm sorry to say.
On the plus side, the picture looks great, period details (1951 Hollywood) are well done, and production value is top-notch. It's obvious that the Coens put lots of effort into recreating early 50's Hollywood, both in look and in substance. Set pieces of movies within the movie include many genres that were being produced at that time, most notably the Arthur Freed/Gene Kelly style musicals, the big budget biblical epics, the low budget singing cowboy oaters, and the Esther Williams swimming spectaculars.
There's a scattering of inside jokes and references for classic movie lovers to recognize, and it's fun to see how the Coens attempted to recapture the flavor of old Hollywood moviemaking at that time. All of that stuff is fun and interesting, unfortunately there's just not enough of it. Too many times the bits fall flat or don't tie in, or are simply boring, which is the last thing you would expect from a Coen brothers movie.
Too much of the time the picture isn't funny when it tries to be, there's no black humor, and worst of all there's no Coen quirkiness either. Structurally speaking, there isn't any. And individual elements that should have (and could have) come together nicely never meet or pay off. I was waiting for the main "actor" characters to intertwine somehow in a clever climactic finish, but it never happens.
The main character in the picture is Eddie Mannix, but I couldn't figure him out and I get the feeling neither could the Coens. The writing is disappointing, especially in the creation of the actor characters, which offer us nothing new or insightful, but mostly depend on old stereotypical caricatures from other movies.
The Esther Williams character as played by Scarlett Johansson, looks glamorous on screen when doing her swimming scenes but talks with an exaggerated Brooklyn low-class accent when she's off camera. But the gag doesn't work. This joke was perfect with the Jean Hagen character from "Singin' in the Rain," because she played a SILENT movie star. That was the gag; no one knew how she really spoke. The Johansson character is making her movies in the fifties when she undoubtedly has plenty of dialogue when she isn't swimming. Does she sound that way in her movies?
And why in the world would a studio take a successful singing cowboy star (with an exaggerated southern twang) and stick him in an English drawing-room melodrama? I know that's supposed to be the joke, but there has to be some level of believability to make this stuff work. It isn't here.
Dialogue, many times, feels hackneyed and clichˇd, like when the singing cowboy walks onto the set in a tuxedo and makes a comment to the director about how tight the shirt collar feels around his neck, as if it's the first time he's ever worn one. C'mon! How many times has that been said by blue-collar guys in the movies not used to wearing ties? By the way, I would guess in 1951 even a cowboy Hollywood movie star would be quite used to wearing a tuxedo collared shirt and tie when attending premieres and award events.
Then we have the whole Hollywood Ten communist writers thing, which didn't pay off either. If the moviemakers had a point here, I didn't know what it was. Was it supposed to have a message? Was it supposed to be spoofy? Was it supposed to move the plot along? Was it simply to be funny? It wasn't any of those things, it was dull.
In the end I was left with an unfulfilled feeling, sort of like when you go to an expensive restaurant and the food is just so-so. The place looked great, the waiters were solicitous, and you even found a good parking spot right in front. The only problem was the food was nothing much.
Maybe this is one of those Coen pictures that will actually improve in time with additional viewings. Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to get the full underlining subtext and hidden meanings. Or maybe it's just one of those Hollywood pictures that looks great but doesn't have very much substance to it. Kind of like the pictures portrayed in "Hail, Caesar."