Contract actors, extras, ego-driven directors, production hands, and gossip columnists all inhabit the studio lot that Hail, Caesar! (2016), the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is set within. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man in charge of all of those moving parts, and he's at the heart of this film as he does his best to keep productions moving while protecting the reputations of a slew of film stars at the fictional Hollywood studio Capitol Pictures.
It's the Golden Age of Hollywood and film production is booming. On the lots of Capitol Pictures, the Biblical epic "Hail, Caesar! A Story Of The Christ" is the biggest picture currently in production, with the renowned actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in the lead. Although he works in Hollywood, Eddie Mannix is a Godly man who cares deeply about his purity and walk with the Lord. Solving the daily problems on set at the studio is a nonstop job that is beginning to clash with his life back at home with his wife and kids. When a job offer from outside of Hollywood presents itself, he's attracted to the possibility of having some more stability in his life that his studio job can't give him. Naturally, Capitol Pictures needs Eddie most as he ponders leaving the studio when Baird Whitlock is kidnapped.
A few backlot doors down from "Hail, Caesar! A Story Of The Christ", DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is starring in a Busby Berkeley-esque film with choreographed circles of swimming girls and a live orchestra. Meanwhile, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is about to wrap up production on a Western that will allow for him to be trusted to star in a prestige picture entitled "Merrily We Dance" by the renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). All of these stars will find themselves in their own quandaries and need Mannix's expertise to turn things around.
Hail, Caesar! never manages to reach its full potential, as these stories fail to successfully come together. By proximity alone at Capitol Pictures, the stories are all neighbors (and Eddie Mannix is generally the figure that bridges the gap between each story), but they all start and fizzle out without impacting the overarching narrative. In addition to the close-quarters that these stories take place in, the film occurs over the span of two days, but one forgets that quickly with the lack of control over the scope of the narrative and the relatively slow pace that the action moves at.
Defining the disparate wings of the narrative further, the Coen brothers seem to be more concerned with establishing the colorful work these fictional movie stars are making, rather than what they could be doing outside of their acting work. The action of the narrative is pleasantly interrupted by scenes of on-set activity, the viewing of dailies, and film premieres where we get to see the work of Hobie Doyle and others, but they are merely scenic routes that go around the plot rather than crossing through it. At times, they're used as introductory devices, but beyond that, these scenes do little to support the narrative – aside from their effective addition to the film studio milieu. These moments, particularly Hobie Doyle's introduction in a shoot 'em up Western and Burt Gurney's (Channing Tatum) sailor tap-dance musical number (that could've been a lost scene from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1949 film On The Town) are quite exciting and deliver some of the biggest laughs of the film as physical comedy is blended with whit and charm.
On the other end of the spectrum, the shooting of one of the films within the film had great potential to be hilarious, but it feels under-edited. The whole scene is a lengthy distraction from the plot, and it drags on with no end in sight. Only making it worse, long stretches of silence suck the life out of the entire scene, but long stretches of silence go on to plague the entire film. Sure, the scenes of actors being directed and the scenes where we get to see their film work are interesting, but that's primarily because they are more interesting than the actual plot of Hail, Caesar!. By the end of the film, no one has changed or experienced anything particularly life changing.
Not lending the weak narrative much of a helping hand is Roger Deakins' cinematography, which is stiff and lacks invention. Even a variation of style for the many films within Hail, Caesar! is nowhere to be found. On a more practical level, the cinematography is even unaccommodating to the hot Hollywood sunlight, as faces are occasionally washed out and backgrounds are bright blurs. Sure, much of the film takes place on soundstages or at night, but ignoring one particularly stunning scene in which images layer on top of one another and beautifully dissolve as Hobie drives in pursuit of someone he believes may be involved with Baird's abduction, Hail, Caesar! is visually as empty as the silent spaces between lines of dialogue in this film (though, we can attribute much of the quality of this scene to the editing).
Part of the initial appeal of a film like this is its self-reflexive quality, which is the strength of Hail, Caesar!. Being able to observe cameras getting pushed by dolly grips, matte paintings adorning the walls of studios, and actors being directed is a delight in this film, but it's a shame that the plot isn't as intriguing. Even outside of the main plot and the supporting scenes that show Baird Whitlock and Hobie Doyle acting, some of the most interesting scenes revolve around theology and Eddie Mannix's faith. Faith, as in spirituality, is an integral aspect of the theme of Hail, Caesar!, but it's disappointing that the plot doesn't deserve a theme of that nature.
My rating: 3/5