Hail, Caesar!, the latest Coen brothers film, won’t win any awards for best picture, but it probably should win some kind of recognition for most misleading preview.
If you’ve seen the preview, the movie looks like a very funny take on movie-making at a Hollywood studio in the ’50s, where a clueless leading man making a Biblical Roman epic gets kidnapped by some band representing “the future” and other stars seem to be enlisted to try to bring him home in the face of the unknown threat. In other words, exactly the kind of quirky scenario in which the Coen brothers — creators of classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men — would thrive.
Uhh, not so much. Sure, all of the scenes shown in the preview are in the movie, but that’s where the similarity ends. The quirkiness of the trailer becomes a pretty basic, slow-paced linear story about a Hollywood movie studio fixer type (Josh Brolin) who spends a lot of time walking briskly through studio lots in his double-breasted suit, telling his secretary to handle this and that, and stabbing the blinking lights on his old phone as he deals with each new crisis. And speaking of old phones, this is the kind of movie that people who like production design would love. It’s got vintage phones, vintage cars, vintage office fans, vintage restaurant settings, vintage Hollywood gossip columnist outfits, vintage film editing equipment, and countless other touches that do a pretty convincing job of depicting Hollywood in 1951, all of which are beautifully photographed. If you like that kind of thing, this is the film for you. Most of us, though, are looking for something more.
People who like Hail, Caesar! describe it as a kind of loving tribute to movie-making under the old studio system — which seems like it’s been done to death already, frankly — and the film has lots of behind the scenes shots of sets and sound stages, as well as well done set pieces featuring the filming of a synchronized swimming water movie, a western, and sailors getting ready to ship out dancing in a bar. They don’t really advance the storyline, much, because there really isn’t much of a story in the first place. It turns out that the group representing “the future” isn’t anything particularly interesting, but just a gang of Communist Hollywood writers who kidnap leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) because they feel they’ve been exploited by the studios. The Commies talk to the dim-witted Whitlock about dialectics and economics as the studio fixer addresses problem after problem and wrestles with whether he should stay in his job or take another one.
This is one of those Hollywood insiders movies that comes out from time to time and gets good reviews from people who know all of the references and probably can find exquisite humor in the dialogue. For us, however, it was a big ho hum rather than the kind of funny film we expected. It’s a good lesson — sometimes you just can’t trust a trailer.