Friday, December 7, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Hail, Caesar!

This is the final installment of my bi-monthly 2018 series in which I reconsider certain Coen brothers movies I didn’t love (and one I did).

If I’d made a list ranking Coen brothers movies from first to worst before starting this series, the second-to-last spot on that list might have been reserved for the one that was, until November of this year, their most recent.

That’s right, I really didn’t care for Hail, Caesar! when I saw it back in February of 2016.

And sleepiness victimizes yet another movie.

As written about here, I saw it with a friend, which kept me from smuggling in the snacks that are meant to keep me awake during a movie. (The dubious value of which were discussed only yesterday on this blog.) And the result was one of my most epic struggles to stay awake in recent memory.

I had no such trouble for my second viewing of Hail, Caesar! this past Tuesday night. As a result, I have now upgraded it from a non-plussed two-star rating in 2016 to ... “a hoot.”

So I still don’t love this movie, not by a long shot, but now I do think of it as “a hoot.”

I always had an appreciation for the big set pieces in this movie, particularly the “No Dames!” sequence led by Channing Tatum. But that’s just what this movie felt like to me on the whole: a series of disjointed and disconnected set pieces. Neither of the movie’s two real narrative throughlines – the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by communists and the makeover of the image of movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) – held much value for me. They were both fatally slight.

Of course, the major narrative throughline is supposed to be the day-to-day struggle of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he keeps the lid on any scandals that may threaten the studio and its stars. He’s also trying to decide if he should jump ship for a cushy job at Lockheed. But his arc didn’t interest me much -- he is, paradoxically, a supporting player in multiple storylines, giving him enough screen time to function as the main character. He doesn’t feel developed enough to be a traditional main character. He’s more like a fast-talking prop, played for humor even though the Coens think he isn’t being played that way. Then again, I can’t tell what the Coens actually think for a lot of the parts of this movie.

I do, however, now find this movie a hoot. Certain individual moments exist as isolated delights, like everything Hobie Doyle does with a lasso, like he and Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) duelling in their deliveries of “Would that it were so simple,” like some of the dialogue between the communists. They just don’t add up to more than the sum of individual hoots.

Given what the Coens have given us in 2018 – the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I watched a few weeks ago – I now have a bit more context for where they were headed creatively. When they made Hail, Caesar!, they didn’t essentially want to make a single coherent narrative. They wanted to give us flavors of a world through the eyes of different characters. They erred, I think, by not just breaking it up into an anthology as they did with Buster Scruggs. There’s strain in the effort to make the connections between characters in Caesar. Like, what sense does it make that Hobie Doyle goes off in search of Baird Whitlock? I loved what they did in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and think Caesar could have benefitted from turning their creative impulses more explicitly into that kind of finished product.

During this series I’ve come to recognize that I tend to like melancholy Coens (Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis) more than bug-eyed Coens (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading), except when I don’t – Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men being the exceptions in each category. But Raising Arizona, my favorite movie of all time, is actually bug-eyed Coens undercut by a genuinely moving ending that brings home the film’s underlying sentiment. I suppose that’s my favorite version of the Coens, when they pull it off.

I think they try to pull that off here, but it doesn’t work. The sentiment doesn’t carry much emotional weight, and the jokes in the bug-eyed parts don’t land for me. I’ve noted the exceptions to that latter part. But for example, the scene where Mannix sits at a table full of religious leaders and asks them about the studio’s proposed depiction of Jesus Christ? I can tell that scene is designed to be hilarious, and that the Coens think it is. It just doesn’t land for me.

Still, though, the upgrade in my overall impression of the movie is reasonably significant. My two-star rating is more properly a three, I’d say, which makes this probably the most successful re-coen-sideration of the whole series.

And that finishes the series. In summation, there wasn’t a single film I watched that I actually liked less the second time I saw it. I wonder if that’s a Coens thing, as I just listened to the Filmspotting episode on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and they talked about how Coen movies benefit from repeat viewings, to a greater extent than your average movie. Of course, the results of my series are a bit skewed, as I only watched one movie I already liked. If I had watched exclusively movies I liked instead of mostly movies I didn’t like, I might have seen some of those drop in my estimation.

Still, positive result for the series, though possibly not a profound enough result to really reach any conclusions. The Coens are still some of my favorite filmmakers and I still have issues with some of their films. Two of the most beloved Coen films, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, are movies I didn’t rewatch for this series because I’d already done that on my own time. I still can’t reach others’ level of affection on them.

Most creative talents are going to hit with you sometimes and miss sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. But when the Coens do hit, they hit better than almost anyone else.

I’ve got a bi-monthly series lined up for 2019, and it also concentrates on the work of a well-known director(s). I’ll tell you about that another time.

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