Hail, Caesar, the latest installment from the Coen Brothers, is ambitious and full of brilliant coincidence, physical gags and sharp dialogue. Distinctions of any Coen picture by this point. But when the nostalgia ultimately fades, the film’s takeaway misses its mark. From an ideological view, the film aims to serve two masters and in the process, falls short of that goal. It’s a tonal whirlwind, and not because of a lack of direction. That would be blasphemy. More, because the means by which it delivers its emotional payload are seemingly unfit for the task. The film has all the hallmarks of what you’d like to see in a Coen comedy, only conceptually misguided.
If you’ve seen the film, you’d be hard pressed to divorce it from The Big Lebowski, the earlier Coen work. The similarities are unmistakable; revolving around a kidnapping, kidnappers are of a radical philosophy, ‘fools’ are thrust into circumstances beyond their control and in turn, learn something about themselves…the list goes on. But where Lebowski is a wholly successful movie by balancing its depth with subtle nuance of character and motivation, Caesar tends to overreach. It forces the same storytelling elements from Lebowski to their extremes and winds up feeling essentially hollow when the credits roll and all is said and done.
Caesar has arguably three ‘real’ characters (one who is more of a force than a character as he’s never seen). Apart from these three ‘people’, the rest of the universe is a movie lot of caricatures who are personalities more than they are people and are really there as plot devices rather than living, breathing things. They’re typecasts, and necessarily shallow. Now this isn’t all bad. As Hollywood Golden Era actors in the world of the film, typecasting these characters is nearly compulsory. It’s an ironic and obvious jump to make. An easy place to poke around and have some fun. And even further, the casting real life actors who are nearly caricatures of themselves at this point anyway (the Clooney’s and Johansson’s of the world), from a comedic perspective, this works really well. It’s a multi-layered thing which the Coens get a lot of play out of and it’s the film’s redeeming factor. Case in point, with the tonal permeability we’re allowed through changing movie sets and thus changing the ‘world’, we had the pleasure of experiencing a show-cowboy bumbling through Victorian stage direction and attempting to produce a “mirthless chuckle” for an all-too-patient Ralph Fiennes. The bit had me in stitches.
But so where comedically Caesar may hold a flame to Lebowski, in the end, caricatures are poor conduits for emotional climaxes. And that’s exactly what Baird (Clooney’s character) does in his final monologue, looking up at a crucified Jesus and for the first time really understanding the virtues of his socialist message, then botching the dénouement. And that was, I think, the point of the scene. But after dealing with such tonal inconsistencies and extreme characterizations throughout the entirety of the film, this meta-moment that may have otherwise been a powerful one, instead, it becomes too ironic and delivers a laugh, but ultimately it disappoints.
All that being said, I give credit where it is due. Caesar was lofty and it was attempted honestly. I just don’t think it was possible given its makeup. As we got into the deeper motifs, those of determinism and the workings of a Marxist apparatus, ridiculousness became too much of a distraction and the message became lost in translation. There were certainly high points to stuff into your pocket and save for another day. But in the end, the film just didn’t come together for me when empathy was needed and the philosophy and humor were at odds.