The Coen brothers are back with their new picture Hail Casesar! An underwhelming film about Hollywood Studios in the 1950s. Their brilliance (as filmmakers) is undeniable, however their films are often hit-or-miss. The Big Lebowski being one of my bigget cinematic inspirations for its genius in the use of great humor to address serious issues), is a masterpiece; as is No Country for Old Men, and of course, the crowd favorite Fargo, even the oldie but goodie Barton Fink and the querky hyper-realistic Raising Arizona. However, films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Burn After Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy, and now Hail Caesar! are, in my opinion---successful to their cast of stars, the numerous cameos by some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, and of course, riding on the coattails of their already existing fame. Not that every movie willl be a hit by any artist. This would be unrealistic, but the fact that these flops still receive critical accaim is baffling.
After watching Hail Caesar! here are my own personal opinions on this cinematic fail:
The masterful art direction and Production Design. The lavish sets, grandious mis-en-scene. The vibrancy of the colors. The costumes. The Cinematography, the beautiful wide shots. The dance numbers (mostly the water sequence choreography). The fact that they shot the film in Los Angeles, is also a plus, allowing work to remain in LA, and without displacing their Cast and Crew from their home and families. Another notable mention is the Acting. Excellent, precise, committed. The environment was at times noir, at times dreamy, and invoking (with reverence)--the work that came before us--with allusions to Hollywood's Golden Age and the likes of Tony Curtis (George Clooney), Carmen Miranda (Carlotta Valdez) , gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper (Tilda Swinton), Channun Tatum (Gene Kelly) referencing the 1949 movie On the Town, Frances McDormand(Blanche Sewel), and Josh Brolin's character of Eddie Mannix, a fictional interpretation of the real life Eddie Mannix. It even alluded to Noir films with it's mysterious introduction and Voice Over by Michael Chambon. It's attempt to correlate the frustration of Hollywood writers, in the machine of the Hollywood money-making industry was also admirable, as these are issues that transcend the time period, and even prove that these problems haven't disappeared over time, they are still relatable today.
The Writing is terrible. The story goes in a million directions only to go nowhere. A very slow burn for a bleak reward. There is no payoff in the anti-climactic finale. A purge of Hollywood superstars all making cameos, lavish elaborate sets for a piece of writing that is subpar and frankly mediocre. A good story should be a good story regardless, using the Coen Brother's own words---we don't sit and think about race when we are writing a good story---they seem to actually not concern themselves with race, but with Hollywood stars. If this exact same movie was made with no-name actors, it would have been an entirely different movie because it feels like it heavily relies on it glitz and glamor to sell a boring script that goes nowhere ---and very slowly. And what's ironic is, how can you make a film about Hollywood writers, when the very writing of Hail Caesar is so bad?
The message it attempts to tell (about the Hollywood studios and Capitalism, and art being debunked for money, and box-office hits over true auteurship and quality filmmaking) gets lost in the ADHD style of storytelling, and is propagandized in your face, to such a degree that it proves ineffective. The story feels contrived, forced, as if they had an agenda, and sacrificed quality and substance for propaganda, giving the audience a diluted message that couldn't have been more on the nose. Even if they were going for some sort of propaganzising (as was costumary with Communist manifestos and the dialectis of the anti-capitalist political movement), it could have still been more creative in its ways of executing this. And here in lies the BIGGEST problem with Hail Caesar! It lacks heart and creativity. The Voice Over, which had potential, in the Noir-themed first sequence--wasn't fully realized, and became a boring and ineffective plot-device. Read/performed by Pulitzer Prize winner, and best-selling author Michael Chambon, it quickly became a monotonous and boring device for when they couldn't convey on-screen what they needed to have read over voice over. It never felt like story-telling, it just felt like information. Voice Overs are often frowned upon in screenwriting, however, they can be used very effectively to add to the story. Some of my all-time favorite films have Voice Overs. Jules et Jim by Truffaut, Pickpocket (Bresson), Terrence Malick's Badlands, The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer), Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, Taxi Driver (Scorcese), Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais), Ferris Buller's Day Off (Joh Hughes), and even the Coen Brother's very own The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, all employ fantastic use of V.O. where the Voice becomes a character, a reflection....In Hail Caesar! the voice over is an example of everything a voice over shouldn't be---boring, making up for lack of creativity, an example of "telling, not showing."
The other main reason for the film's failure is its ineffective characters that lack any form of humanity. The only story that came close to being interesting was that of Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich), he had the most humanity and heart, and when we are introduced to Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), the audience for the first time, finds itself rooting for something; unfortunately this is cut short by the need to push plot forward and get back to the nothingness that is everything else that is happening in the film.
The film's reliance on it's star power is also another gloss over a crappy script. For example, I love Frances McDormand (I love her work on all of the Coen Brothers films, but my favorite is seeing her in The Wooster Group). I appreciate the scene in Hail Caesar! because it showed a powerful woman in Hollywood, editing; however, that scene was entirely unnecessary to the story as a whole.
Other than Veronica Osorio's character, and other minor characters such as the Asian Host/Manager at the Chinese restaurant (Good Luck Bar), there were otherwise no actors of color whatsoever. I undertstand that the Coen Bros were trying to be "true to what it may have actually been like back then" in 1950s Hollywood, but for such innovative filmmakers who hyper-realize their chartacters and stories, and who ask audiences around the world to 'suspend their disbelief' and accept the realities they create (no matter how bizzare and off-beat they are), there were many opportunities to incorporate people of color in numerous roles. Off the top of my head, three areas where they could have incorporated actors of color: 1) some of the actors playing "Extras" in the film (inside the film) could have been African-American, Palestinian, Hispanic, after-all it is true to fact that in that time period (of the Romans-not the 1950s), people of color were war warriors, and slaves to the Romans, so why not there? 2) Also the Communists--I understand they were meant to be Hollywood Screenwriters, and likely most screenwriters would have been white men, but this could have been an opportunity. And 3) the band that played for the Mermaid sequence, I am pretty sure that in the 50s, the bands were not always all white bands. And as for the character of Carlotta Valdez, was it required that she have an accent? Because Veronica Osorio doesn't actually have a Hispanic accent on any of her youtube videos, but for the role of Carlotta Valdez she was required to have one? Did this add to the movie? Was this a Directorial choice to provide depth to her character? Because it would have been easier to just write better characters all around that rely on the pyrotechnics of accents, and flashy, elaborate sets, and A-listers making cameos.
Bottom line, It was just a bad story, that didn't really go anywhere and relied on parading around celebrities in beautiful sets, encased behind a great shotlist. However, I want to be clear that this film fails for me, regardless of their lack of diversity in casting. In fact, if there was ever a Coen Brother movie where lack of diversity would be justified, this one would be it, however, what is not justified, is the Coen Brother's privileged perspective on "Diversity" in film (as a whole). Which brings me to----
When asked about their feelings on #Oscarssowhite and diversity overall, Joel Coen's response:
"You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?” Joel continued. “If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic."
This kind of statement is problematic, because it assumes that in order to have Black people or Latino people, you must write characters for them, which is not the case, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, are not like a dog, or a martian. You have to sit down and write a dog or a martian into a script, but why can't a person of color play any one of your other characters? Why must whiteness equal universal. A storyteller should not sit down and specifically keep in mind "ooh, I need to have a person of color character in my story" but, why can't any one of the hundreds of characters in the story be played by a person of color? It shouldn't take that much more thinking, or effort, it could be the cop in Fargo, or any one of the three main characters in O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the fact that they see it as having to "write specifically a "black role" IS the problem.
Unfortunately, as audiences, and appreciators of art, we often hold the work the Artists we admire to such high standards, that we expect them to be conscious, self-aware, and all around good people, the truth is we shouldn't idolize the Coen brothers; sure their work is great, they are just too consumed by their own privilege to understand that they are a big part of the problem. I think the topic of diversity, and the need to diversify in Hollywood, was frankly, just over their head. And although Hail Caesar! wasn't a masterpiece by any means, they are no less great directors because of their distorted views on diversity and believing that writing a character of color into a film, is the same as writing in a dog or a martian, and just because they are geniuses in their craft, they are no less ignorant than most people in America when it comes to seeing whiteness as universal.