Is Too Much Meta, Meta?

I’ve never been a Coen brothers fanboy. I haven’t seen all their movies; some I was barely bothered to catch on Netflix.

As opposed to this version. Iron Man & Jules Winnfield meet The Breakfast Club? How did Schindler's List manage to win the Oscar that year?

As opposed to this version. Iron Man & Jules Winnfield meet The Breakfast Club? How did Schindler’s List manage to win the Oscar that year?

Mostly, I can tell if I want to see one of their movies just by the commercial. I don’t know what it is, but their commercials have been 100% accurate in determining whether I’ll like that particular film and should either pay to see it in the theatre or wait for it to hit streaming:

  • Fargo – damn straight
  • True Grit – damn straight
  • No Country for Old Men – meh
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? – meh
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – not on your fucking life

That’s just an arbitrary example of my tastes, which is the filter I used to determine if I wanted to see “Hail, Caesar”.

When I saw the first commercials for “Hail, Caesar”, I was in.

There appeared to be a bunch of things I liked all contained in one movie:

  • Throwback noir
  • Josh Brolin as a Philip Marlowe-type character
  • Scarlett Johansson
  • A nicely put-together ensemble cast
  • A couple of moving plots
  • The promise of Scarlett Johansson wet and/or in a pool

All this went straight to the “damn straight” part of my brain. I needed to see this on the big screen.

To be convinced, I checked out a couple of reviews of critics whose tastes seem to mirror mine, including Vince Mancini from [redacted]. It sounded pretty positive.

Then the moment of truth – I saw it. Sunday night, after the Super Bowl.

Now, to help people decide against reading further and seeing some (possible) soft spoilers, I’m going to put this picture here. The opinions will start on the other side.

Spoiler spoiler: The movie needed more of this.

Still here? Let’s continue.

(Disclosure: this movie was the escape plan if the game turned into a 1st quarter blowout. My wife likes football a lot, but not enough to stick out a whole, crappy game and “fucking Coldplay is the halftime show?!”.)

Two talented people, and the white guy they were hired to support.

First of all, the positives. Josh Brolin is as advertised. I could watch him remake any Bogart crime flick. His dialogue is first rate, and although it might seem like he’s doing a noir homage it always sounds like it was written for his character, and with him in mind for playing that character. They don’t get into his internal struggles enough, given how often they’re referenced, but that’s a minor quibble. He absolutely carries this picture, and does so handsomely.

I would watch a dozen of anything this character was in.

Clooney was good. It seemed like he had fun making fun of his “George Clooney” aura. There’s a scene between him and Josh Brolin that is fun, and helps close the book on an icky opening scene that involved ‘straightening out a dame’. And for a kid I’d never heard of before, Alden Ehrenreich was pretty good in what his role required, despite looking like Leo DiCaprio & Liev Schreiber’s baby.

As with all Coen brothers productions, it is beautifully shot; you can really feel the pastiche of the 1950s in the picture. It walked the fine line between homage and parody, a semi-serious version of the 4th wall break at the end of “Blazing Saddles”. [Note to self: watch “Blazing Saddles” again this week.]

Title cards alone can sometimes be arbiters of good movies.

It’s a handsome picture, befitting the handsome cast (+ Jonah Hill) they’ve put together.

See? The font looks hilarious.

But whoo boy, the inconsistencies…

Without giving away too much, there is a fair amount of plot that goes unexplained. Not in a Pulp Fiction way, where the unknown is an actual part of the plot. It’s more of a “let’s introduce a fun character, get people to love him instantly, then later on – **record scratch** – give him a dark side”. For example, the motives for Channing Tatum’s character are never explained, and given how much fun he was during his first scenes, it’s very frustrating. This is going to sound stupid, but it seems like they used a maguffin to make Chekov’s gun help you notice the other maguffin.

This part, however, was particularly enjoyable.

The historical facts on which the movie derives some of its plot are a fascinating era in Hollywood and North America, and was also covered in “Trumbo” to serious, nominated effect. If anyone could find humour in people like Walt Disney ruining their employees lives over residuals, I’d trust the Coens. They spend a lot of time making sure you know this conflict is important to the story, and try to drive this plot forward with this class-struggle humour. But there’s a repetition of the usual Coen “shut the fuck up, Donny!” thing that keeps you from taking it seriously as a plot point, and the way it tied up felt neutered.

“Hey – let’s put Tilda Swinton in this!” is clearly a conversation that happened.

Given her prominence in the trailer, there’s not enough Scarlett. I WAS PROMISED A PRETTY GIRL IN A SWIMSUIT! But they actually handle the lack of swimsuit in a funny way, tied tangentially into the plot. There is a Lauren Bacall-esque scene that held promise, but then her character disappears from the movie entirely, and only comes up again in a passing mention to wrap up that supposed plot point.

This is what the commercial promised with ScarJo’s role. A movie about the 1950s needs more of this.

Ralph Fiennes – there. Frances McDormand – there. What they need to do for the picture, they get done. Their roles could have been played by anybody, but I see why they went big name / cast his wife.

This is how you resolve a kidnapping plot

The resolution about the (mentioned in the commercial, so not a spoiler) kidnapping plot doesn’t work, at least to me. I can see how the actions of the characters come together to solve the problem, but it seemed more chance than conviction. Finally, the movie just ‘ends’; when it finished, I felt like I’d been shorted about 15 minutes. At 106 minutes, a movie should not evoke the feeling of “It wasn’t the greatest movie, but hopefully I can stick it out to the ending and…wait, what just happened??”

To reference a bit from “The Big Bang Theory”, there’s an episode where one of the characters makes the observation that for all Indy does in “Raiders”, if he’d done nothing at all, the events of the movie would have unfolded exactly the same way. And that’s why I’m most upset with this movie – not because I was tricked into going by the commercials; not by the tragic underuse of a briefly swimsuited Scarlett Johansson – because at its heart it reminded me of Sheldon and the nerd gang. That’s what I ended up spending $12 on, and I kind of expect more from the Coen brothers.

Viewability scale: (Theatre-full price / Theatre-half-price / Stream / Wait for TV / Nope / Eye Cancer)

It’ll make a fine off season Sunday afternoon watch on Bravo, paired with some sharp cheese and a nice Chablis. It’ll appear on free tv in about 18 months, which seems about right. At an hour & forty-six minutes, it’ll be stretched to 2 ½ on cable; three hours on TBS or AMC. Otherwise, the only reason to go to the theatre (at half-price) is if you are a Coen afficianado.


Next / future review: Deadpool

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  1. Good work. I will wait, as I do for almost every movie nowadays. With the brothers I really like some of their stuff like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, etc. but I’m firmly in the meh camp for others like O Brother, Where Art Thou.

  2. I like the Coens, but when they set out to tell a story and the idiosincracies are woven into it, not the story itself. Except for Big Lebowski: that thing is just wonderful.

  3. This is a great review! It really informs me as to whether I would want to see it or not without giving much of the plot away. Excellent job!

  4. Nice work. I’m admittedly a Coen Bros. fanboy myself, but it’s nice to see a seal of approval from someone who isn’t. I’m looking forward to seeing this one soon.

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