The rules are simple. The good get spared. The bad get spoiled.
Hail, Caesar! (Universal Pictures)
Written, Produced & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
High concept. Hail, Caesar! is an exquisite work of art. But is it enjoyable? It’s very cool. Hail, Caesar! is starkly distant and cold. Visually stunning. It’s breathtaking. The plot is below average. It’s adorably cliché. Yet over the top because of its modern film-making and modern hind-sight. I practically busted a gut just from those beautiful and artful touches of pure unadulterated genius. The Coen Brothers are the best. A love song to Old Hollywood. It’s brilliant. But I only barely enjoyed it. Hail, Caesar! is a museum piece. Something you view through glass. Something you read about on the plaque attached. Something that makes you feel the way the experts tell you you’re supposed to feel. This one is for the laughs. The plaque reads. “Hey! It’s technically very funny.” That’s how I read it. Surprised and interested but in a deadpan delivery from out of an old 30’s Hollywood feature. The technique is funny but frigid. So, mind you, I’m personally reading that plaque from the cold hard floor of that proverbial museum laughing my fucking ass off. So… I guess I liked it. Sort of…
Philosophically speaking this is a very smart movie. Extremely well-written. It opens the cliché of the old Hollywood system with writing that is drenched in realism but with a plot that is assembly line basic die-cast plastic like it came in a box from a hobby shop. But its supposed to be like that. The juxtaposition makes it hysterical. The dialogue is a seamless mix of dime store detective fecal matter and the brilliance of collected human thought. Stitched together so professionally that the political, religious and economic concepts sound pedestrian and the gum shoe banter sounds like it comes with a PHD in philosophy. And this painstakingly crafted concept shouts, “Hey! it’s technically very funny.”
Visually speaking this a gorgeous movie but again the lofty concept smacks you in the eye holes. I mean it makes them weep with joy at how freaking beautiful this films is. The look and feel are all part of that wonderful joke. The old-timey movie scenes made with superhero movie special effects subtleties. The use of visual effects in Hail, Caesar! almost suffocated me. I was laughing so hard. It’s so fucking funny. But it’s also so beautiful that it demands to be taken seriously. I mean it slaps you right across the face and yells, “Take me seriously.” Like one of those old Hollywood b-movie slaps that a fella gives a dame when she’s acting squirrelly. Don’t laugh. It’s a dated and phenomenal work of art and “Hey! it’s technically very funny.”
Professionally speaking the acting goes right along with this wonderful dichotomy. With the added bonus of having actors playing actors. George Clooney is just decent in the movie. He plays his character well. I suppose. He always does. But the actor he plays in the movie is doing Oscar level work in the movies within the movie. It hurt my head. The character is a great actor. The actor playing the actor is removed from this by playing the character just average but acting the hell out of his acting scenes. It’s brilliant. It’s, again, technically very funny. But what am I laughing at really? The movie’s one joke. The musical numbers are fantasy sequences without the fantasy elements. The stunts and dances are the equivalent of superpowers minus the super and the powers. Each one played for this beautiful unrealistic realism. But before I make this orbital station of a concept seem even colder than it actually is. I need to say it again. “Hey! (and say it with me people) it’s technically very funny.”
Literally speaking (actually I’m writing) I know I haven’t mentioned the plot. There’s a plot. It’s movie worthy. It fits the barest definition of generic Hollywood movie plot. And by that I mean a movie about Hollywood and also an Old Hollywood style movie. Concept overpowers narrative so that in the end we’re left with the blatantly unapologetic definition of phoning it in. Enough to make you question whether or not to call it writing. It’s more like assemblage. But the concept tells its own story. And it’s wonderful. It makes statements about history and integrity. It paints with nostalgia and science. Religion and philosophy. It tells the story of humanity and culture. And laughs at our distortion of our past and the past within our past. It’s as much phoning it in as Neil Armstrong’s famous words were phoned into NASA. Yeah. They literally were. so Hail, Caesar! is an old rotary phone that gets high-speed internet access. And before I put you to sleep with my customary I-just-saw-a-great-movie pretentiousness. We’re gonna go back to the chorus.
Artistically speaking Hail, Caesar! is an exquisite work of art. It’s not a good movie. But it’s technically perfect. It’s like the stickiest time-travel paradox. I don’t know how to put it succinctly in a blog format. I’m having a hard time finding the words. You know the Yin & Yang symbol? How the two halves are joined yet separate? However people familiar with the symbol will know that they are not so separate after all because the most important part (to me at least) was always the eyes of each. The good within the bad and the bad within the good. So I think the problem I’m having is which one is on the outside. Which quality defines the whole? Is it a good movie made to look, sound and feel like it’s not and really is at the same time? Or a bad movie extremely well-made in a bad way? Only time will tell. History will be the true judge.
Historians will note that Mel Rook (from Mel Rook & the Seven Deadly Sins) settles the question when he writes these words (back in the year 2016):
“Hail, Caesar! makes you do too much work just to be able to like it. But at the same time it’s well worth the effort and one of the best things The Coen Brothers have ever done.”
Nope. That’s not it either.