Packed with a who’s-who of A-list stars, “Hail, Caesar!” is an utterly confusing and borderline mess of a movie. It seems like one very long and very confusing in-joke about the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system.
The oddball script doesn’t make much sense even for those who are well versed in the history of Hollywood. I counted at least a dozen “WTF?” moments that left me scratching my head and wondering what the heck the intention of this movie is. It’s sort of an unsuccessful satire, it’s sort of a fun period piece, it’s sort of a comedy / musical, it’s sort of a commentary on movies and religion and politics and Communism. There’s no clear focus. In the end, “Hail, Caesar!” comes across as a very angry hate letter to Hollywood (which isn’t surprising given that it’s made by the Coen brothers, themselves a pair of nonconformist filmmakers).
At least the movie is mildly amusing with some phenomenal performances from the star-studded cast (a very funny George Clooney, a very penitent Josh Brolin, a comically frustrated Ralph Fiennes, and a simply charming Alden Ehrenreich in particular). Sadly, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill have their talents mostly wasted with storylines that enter with a bang and simply go nowhere. I hated how these characters were just abandoned and I wanted to see more.
The bright spot in this mess is Channing Tatum, playing a Fred Astaire type character who, well, let’s just say he makes a rather dramatic exit from the story. Tatum’s musical number is one of the best things I’ve seen in a movie in a while. It brought me pure joy (but who doesn’t love to watch him dance?)
The filmmaking style of the movie is as lovely as expected but in the end, “Hail, Caesar!” is dragged down with way too many insider Hollywood studio jokes that just aren’t funny. Fans of the Coen brothers will still enjoy it, but this isn’t a movie for your average audience. If you’re a fan of their other comedy work, go; otherwise, you should wait for Netflix.
A meta, referential and quasi-reverential cinematic love letter/hate tract to the golden age of Hollywood and the studio system, “Hail Caesar!” isn’t for everyone. Yes, it’s chock-full of big A-list stars and yes, they have some fun and interesting material to work with. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.
When you watch a film like this, you can just feel it losing the audience. People go to see it expecting a comedy (which it sort of is) and start out laughing loudly at just about everything that could remotely be classified as a joke, even if the joke isn’t very funny. As the picture unspools, the laughs slowly taper off. By the time it gets to something that is actually very funny, the picture is met with mostly silence — the audience having disengaged with it long before.
There are some good bits here — I enjoyed seeing its fictionalized version of Hollywood in the fifties and its behind-the-scenes, exaggerated view of how movies are made (a dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum is particularly memorable). Some of the cartoonish characters are lots of fun to watch (most notably Tilda Swinton‘s feuding twin gossip columnists).
That said, this “movie about moviemaking where they are shooting multiple other movies within the movie” feels a little too insider-y, like it was made for a handful of historians and old-timers who will be able to catch all of the references and understand who is being portrayed and/or satirized. Maybe those folks will find this hysterically funny and completely coherent. The rest of us, however, will leave feeling slightly confused by the experience.