The allure of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s films elude me. To me, they are akin to Steven Spielberg, but for “clever” people. Their 2016 homage to big studio Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, marries the well worn detective story with William Beaudine’s underrated Make Me A Star (1932) with mixed results. The framing narrative focusing on Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix reprises the Cohen Brothers’ interests in noble masculinity. This framing narrative links together a series of pastiches that, each on its own, is entertaining. Yet, somehow, the sum of all of these parts working together is a detriment to the film overall, not a strength.
Like so many of the Cohens’ films Hail, Caesar! is overwritten. There are too many supporting characters, there’s a needless voice over narration, and little to no depth afforded the primary characters in the story: Eddie Mannix, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). The aesthetic of the film suggests that in the writing of the picture the Cohens were lost somewhere between Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and RKO serials.
The two best moments of Hail, Caesar! come in the form of the loosely connected pastiches. First there is Scarlett Johansson in a send-up of the Esther Williams MGM musical comedy. This kind of a film hasn’t existed since the fifties which gives the water ballet sequence an air of excitement (at least for this viewer). Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran is a stark contrast to her “million dollar mermaid” persona that really taps into the spirit of Esther Williams’ memoir. This scene left me wishing that there were a string of Scarlett Johansson water ballet musicals out there.
The second pastiche also riffs off of the MGM musical. This time the Cohens set their sights on the “sailor on leave” premise, bringing to the fore all of the homoerotic subtext inherent in those films. Tatum, like Johansson, steals the viewer’s attention from the wider narrative and leaves them wanting more of “No Dames”.
The Cohens always seem to have good or interesting concepts in their films that never seem to be fully realized or to escape certain genre cliche. One can’t help but wonder if the Cohen Brothers had been watching a lot of Robert Altman when they first had the idea for Hail, Caesar!.