Despite critical acclaim, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ disappoints

Burt Gurney, played by Channing Tatum, performs an elaborate tapdancing number with cast. Photo courtesy of Slate.
Burt Gurney, played by Channing Tatum, performs an elaborate tapdancing number with cast. Photo courtesy of Slate.

Warning: The following “review” of Hail, Caesar! contains spoilers. In fact, the first line is a spoiler. If you plan on seeing this film, and you’d prefer to not know the twist, so to speak, read no further.

Okay, so, here goes: George Clooney and Channing Tatum become Communists. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, make no mistake – it’s not. It’s the storyline for Joel and Ethan Coen’s most recent film, Hail, Caesar!

In truth, I left the North Adams Movieplex a bit confused, full of questions like, was I supposed to like that? Did I black out during a critical part of the film? Shouldn’t there have been four times as many dance scenes involving Channing Tatum?

To find out if I was the only one left utterly bewildered by the film, I looked to the authority on all matters of sophistication (by which I mean pretension): The New Yorker. Richard Brody, a film critic with light-years more experience than me, loved the film, something he wastes no time in asserting in his review. The very first line in his review is, “Yes, Hail, Caesar! is superb, and it was foreseeably so.”

Reading Brody’s review of the film led to more questions. Was I a dunce? Should I have saved myself the mental strain and instead bought a ticket to London Has Fallen? I felt a strong desire to completely change my opinion on Hail, Caesar! I desperately wanted to seem smart in my movie review for the hundreds – no, the thousands – of people who read the Record. But when I sat down to write this piece, I knew it was my duty to offer my true, unfettered opinion of the movie.

So I’m going to do that. But first, I’ll try and summarize a bit of the film’s plot. Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood in 1951. The majority of the film follows the hectic life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures Studios. His position requires him to deal with countless problems, the most pressing of which is the disappearance of Hollywood’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from the set of Hail, Caesar!, the film slated to be the studio’s biggest release of the year. Of course, it is up to Mannix to find Whitlock in order for shooting to continue, and, of course, there are a 1001 other problems for him to simultaneously attend to – an enticing job offer, a nicotine addiction, the necessity of keeping the promiscuity of his stars out of the press… the list goes on and on.

The film’s bizarre and discordant progression mimics the frenetic nature of Mannix’s profession – that much I understood. Yet I still found myself disoriented and disinterested throughout most of the film’s action, and this is probably my biggest issue with the movie. I read Richard Brody’s review of the film several times, eager to discover what I’d missed in my viewing of the movie. And I have to say, Brody provides a thorough assessment of the film, one that highlights every one of the Coen brothers’ successes and fully justifies his high opinion. After I read the review, I was disappointed with myself for not recognizing, and celebrating, the Coen brothers for poking fun at a Hollywood that was then (and, unfortunately, still is) dominated by white men. I kicked myself for not catching the way in which the directors portrayed Hollywood as an altar of American religion, one that almost superseded the actual religions in our country.

But Brody’s critique went on to consider the role of McCarthyism in the film – not only how it interacted with Communism but also homosexuality. He discussed the film as a lament for the absence of “plenipotentiary power” in today’s Hollywood, when contrasted with Hollywood in the ’50s. At that point in The New Yorker’s review, I laughed to myself and went to look up the word, “plenipotentiary.” (It means either a person with full powers or a diplomat authorized to represent a government. You’re welcome.)

Keeping up with the film’s madcap progression was enough of an undertaking. To have caught all the themes and motifs that Brody praised in the film would have required four more viewings and a master’s degree in film studies. Perhaps ironically, this actually made me feel more confident in my own reaction to the film. Sure, I had also confirmed that Richard Brody is, and will forever be, more intelligent than I am. But that’s probably the case for most of us.

If you do feel inclined to go see Hail, Caesar!, you’ll laugh often and enjoy cameos from the likes of Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and many more. If you haven’t seen much of Alden Ehrenreich’s acting, you’re in for a treat. But I suspect you’ll find yourself slightly lost and frustrated at what the film asks of its viewers.  You might just leave the theater feeling the same way I did: bewildered and unimpressed.

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