The Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is not a bad film. The Coen brothers are such expert craftsmen that they are incapable of making a bad movie. They’re always at least watchable. If you look at their filmography, they have made a number of American classics or near classics, from comedies like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, thrillers like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men, and hauntingly thoughtful films like Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and Inside Llewyn Davis.
But Hail, Caesar! feels like a lesser Coen brothers’ movie, as if the smartest kids in class just half-assed an essay–it’s coherent, but they’re capable of so much more. There’s so much to like and even love about Hail, Caesar!, and yet thrown together, it all feels undercooked. It functions as a film, but it also feels like a Hollywood dream only half-realized.
That’s why at the end of Hail, Caesar! I turned to fellow Flixist writer Alec Kubas-Meyer and said, “This would have been better as a series.”
It totally should have been.
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Both Tasha Robinson at The Verge and Lesley Coffin at The Mary Sue mentioned in their reviews that Hail, Caesar! feels more like a TV pilot than a film, which is accurate. The film introduces a rich cast of characters, many of which could have carried their own films about the trials and tribulations of 1950s Hollywood.
There’s Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio head and fixer dealing with the difficult day-to-day grind of running Capitol Pictures and managing his talent. There’s Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a leading man who’s kidnapped by a group of subversive Communist screenwriters while he is shooting a swords and sandals epic about Jesus told from the Roman point of view. There’s Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a singing-cowboy who’s trying to be turned into a debonair leading man. There’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a pregnant starlet trying to figure out how to keep her situation under wraps. There’s Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton in increasingly ridiculous hats), twin sisters and rival gossip columnists. There’s Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a high-toned director of stylish pictures. And there’s Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a tap dancing leading man who looks great in a sailor outfit.
It’s almost like Joel and Ethan Coen had about six or seven ideas about different Hollywood movies they wanted to do and just decided to jam them all together in one picture.
It’s no wonder everything feels just half-developed with that ensemble; at a certain point, the characters felt more like cameos, and Hail, Caesar! feels less like a story with actual stakes and more like a pretext for fun gags (one of the standouts is a theological debate over a script), amusing scenes (Hobie killing time before a film premiere by twirling a lasso around), and extended homages to Hollywood’s past (overt nods to On the Town, ditto Esther Williams water ballets). When I think of The Big Lebowski, it feels like a film even though it’s so packed with colorful characters, but Hail, Caesar! feels like the start of something rather than a self-contained story.
I’m obviously in no position to tell the Coen brothers’ how to do what they do, but in my head, I could envision Hail, Caesar! as a six-episode miniseries on Netflix, with each episode running 45 minutes. The entire series would still, like the film, take place in just one day, but each episode would focus on a particular plot in the film anchored to a character or group of characters.
One episode could cover Baird’s kidnapping and the whole Communist conspiracy subplot. One episode would be about the dueling Thacker sisters trying to out-scoop each other. Another about DeAnna’s dilemma, what it was like to be an over-scrutinized starlet at that time, and how she winds up with Jonah Hill’s character by the end. (About 95% of Hill’s total screentime is in the trailers and commercials.) Another episode could be about Lorentz and Burt, their possible clandestine relationship, and the experience of closeted gay talent in Hollywood during this era. Hobie’s episode would be a comedy of manners as he drifts between high and low genres as well as casual and formal situations. And of course, there’d be an episode about Mannix and his choice of being the fixer of a studio or accepting a better and easier position at Lockheed.
Each episode would occasionally intersect with other episodes, presenting the same scene, but possibly offering a different point of view of that scene. (Think Elephant or Jackie Brown.) The constant in every show, however, would be Mannix. He’s the moral core and center of the studio, and without him these lives would fall apart. The final episode, which would be Mannix’s episode, would cover all of the things he did in the day that weren’t in the other episodes, like the bookending confessions, his theological meeting, his big decision about the Lockheed gig, etc. It would also give a chance to see more interactions with his wife (a wasted Allison Pill), his secretary (Heather Goldenhersh), and an editor (Frances McDormand).
The Coen brothers have shown a knack for aesthetic shapeshifting, and had Hail, Caesar! been a series instead of a movie, they could have made each episode have its own style and mood befitting the character and plot being covered. Most importantly, though, the characters would all be given their due and have their stories told–plots rather than subplots, an ensemble cast rather than a collection of cameos.
We’re in a golden age of television, streaming, and episodic storytelling. It would have been great to see the Coen brothers pay homage to that waning golden age of Hollywood in a serialized medium that is now coming into its own.