Hail Caesar is a kind of poem to things they don’t do any more, like making Roger Deakins shoot on 35 mm film and run his own cameras. If it works at all as a movie, it works as a reminder that once upon a time, Hollywood did things which were genuinely difficult to do, and just watching that happen counted as entertainment. So you have Scarlett Johansen in an Esther Williams pastiche, and Channing Tatum chanelling Gene Kelly, and some kid I never heard of channelling a whole bunch of cowboy actors I also never heard of, and a constant saturation in the simple, difficult physicality of making a Hollywood movie in the days of the studio system.
And each of these bits works for the moments in which it’s happening, but it’s a clip show, not a movie. It’s stunning to watch Esther Williams’ water ballets re-enacted and recall that sixty years ago you just had to do those things again and again until they were perfect instead of fixing it all with CGI and green screen. It’s just as much fun to watch Channing Tatum lead a musical number full of singing sailors and tap dancing; on the one hand, I didn’t know that Channing Tatum could tap dance, and on the other hand I’d forgotten how Hollywood used to do things which were both incredibly difficult and magnificently stupid, simply because these were things you could do on a soundstage, pointless or not.
Of course, they’re still doing that; watch any modern action movie and you can’t help realising that they figured out how to do a CGI stunt and then tried to figure out how to write a script which would somehow accommodate it. But somehow a stunt which just took hundreds of computer operators in a warehouse writing endless lines of code doesn’t have the same heft as a stunt which took dozens of skilled people working their hearts out in front of the cameras. I don’t know whether the Coen brothers were trying to make this point, because honestly I don’t have the energy to try to figure out how much subtext the Coens are throwing at things. They sure had fun making sure that no-one missed the parallel between the Marxist dialectic on the control of the means of production and the job title of Eddie Mannix’s Head of Physical Production, so it’s probably safe to guess that they meant everything I spotted and a whole bunch of people I was too dumb to spot.
Still, it’s always reasonable to ask whether a story works as a story. Hail Caesar doesn’t pass that test. If it’s the story of Eddie Mannix, middle-aged troubleshooter, the camera isn’t on him long enough and you never get the sense of him as the protagonist he should be. And it sure ain’t the story of anyone else; Oscar winning stars are drifting through the action at obtuse angles, fleetingly lighting up the screen before disappearing again. Weirdly, Jonah Hill has not just his name but his picture of the poster for a role that consists of a single scene and no more than ten lines of dialogue. Frances McDormand shows up just long enough to be almost strangled by Chekhov’s scarf. Ralph Fiennes steals everything but the cameras as swish “quality director” Laurence Laurentz, driven demented by his actor, but never past the point of exquisite politeness. It’s probably just me, but the best scene in the movie is a pitch meeting where Eddie tries to get a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a “Protestant reverend” and an Orthodox priest to agree that Hail Caesar is a respectful movie about the life of Christ. It’s the sort of scene which could have been a trainwreck, but instead has a touching respect for sincerely held faith; even the Catholic priest, the easiest of targets in this modern age, comes over as a decent man trying to articulate something worth holding on to.
And I haven’t said anything about Clooney, because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Clooney never really seems like he’s trying in movies, until there’s a quiet moment which makes you realise that he’s been drawing you in for an understated punchline, but I’ve rarely seen him so disconnected. It’s one of those performances whose subtlety isn’t apparent at first, because he alternates between a goodlooking idiot and an actor who can’t really act (his performance as “Autolycus” is pitch perfect for a guy too drunk and lazy even to question what the hell kind of name “Autolycus” is). Then right at the end he kicks it up a notch with a vision scene right out of the Richard Burton “Were you …. out there?” playbook, and suddenly that quiet intensity is fully in place - until he fluffs the last line and goes off to have another drink.
Is it a must see? Not even a little bit. It’s a genial mess. But it’s stuffed full of little gems, so that if you were the kind of person - as I once was - who’d take a week off to see everything at a Film Festival, it would be something to treasure, filled as it is with reminders of crafts which were every bit as ridiculous as they were impressive. Nonsense was somehow better in those days.