January through March is commonly referred to by film critics as The Dumping Ground, the time of year when Hollywood’s stock of quality pictures has recently been expended and the first glint of Summer is still a few months away. The movies that make their way to theaters in these months are chosen from the chaff that fell to the floor when the studio was mocking up its release schedule last year: they are the leftovers, the remainders, movies that are destined to live in the shadows of the prestige pictures still occupying the screens they arrived upon only a month or two ago themselves. There is no rhyme or reason to the February Release Calendar. Rather, the Class of February looks like the Island of Misfit Toys, a congregation of cast-offs and almost-made-its that huddle outside together, warming one another with tales of runaway budgets and mid-production crew changes while watching through a window as The Revenant sips champagne and tries to get Brooklyn to look up from its phone.
The Coen Brothers have a history of getting their movies released into The Dumping Ground. Inside Llewyn Davis just missed being considered for the 2013 Awards season because it was released in mid-January; O Brother, Where Art Thou? founds its was to theaters during the first week of February; and The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Ladykillers were all released in March. Lest you think this is merely the product of randomness, almost all of the Coens’ other films have been released in October or November, during peak prestige picture time (for the sake of completeness, two of their films were released in August and one in September).
With the notable exceptions of The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the studios were more or less on point with their decisions to release these movies into theaters during the early months of each given year. The movies are minor works on their faces, either intensely personal projects like Inside Llewyn Davis (which likely garnered its release date in light of the performance of A Serious Man) or stylistic experiments like The Ladykillers, and it is understandable that these films earned less executive devotion than Fargo or No Country for Old Men. Say what you will about the studio system, but it does tend to pigeonhole even the most original films with a disheartening degree of accuracy.
This history makes the decision to release Hail, Caesar! in the second week of February ironic at the very least. The Coens’ latest film follows Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix through a day as the top “fixer” for fictional Capitol Pictures during the height of the studio system’s power in the 1950s. Though he serves as the film’s narrative through line, Mannix is more manic cypher than full-fledged protagonist, though his ability to be in command of a situation while simultaneously allowing everyone around him to get the credit makes him as good a “fixer” as it does a bland main character. Both Mannix the character and Brolin the actor are surrounded by stars, including George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, a leading man who is just as quick to attach himself to a liberal cause as the actor playing him, and Scarlett Johansson, a starlet whose constructed innocence hides a predictable host of unattractive personality traits. Orbiting these luminaries are industry-types like Ralph Fiennes snooty director and bottom-feeders like Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists, and a pair of lesser actors played by Alden Ehrenreich and Channing Tatum also shoulder considerable story weight.
While the film’s nominal plot revolves around the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock from the backlot while he is shooting the eponymous prestige picture, the real focus here is a series of set pieces that take place on (appropriately) sets on the Capitol Pictures lot. Clooney, Ehrenreich, Johansson, and Tatum each get the spotlight for one of these showstoppers, all of which are lovingly crafted homages to a classic movie genres. We get to see a display of synchronized swimming, a moment of subtlety from a period drama, an impressive tap dancing sequence, and a heartfelt, climactic monologue. Of all of these, the scene in which Ehrenreich’s drawling cowpoke actor duels with Fiennes’s civil yet increasingly frustrated director steals the show. If Oscar Isaac’s performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is any indication, the Coen Brothers might have just anointed Ehrenreich as the next big name in acting.
For a movie set during a single twenty four hour period, Hail, Caesar! fails to build up any noticeable amount of steam before its climax. The disparate nature of the movie’s plot, which has Mannix running around Hollywood keeping no fewer than three completely unrelated plots spinning, suggests a ramshackle approach, and for the most part the Coens resist the temptation to take the material more seriously than it deserves, although the couple of scenes with Mannix in the confessional feel as if they come from a different, more somber draft of the script. By the time the movie is almost over and the plots begin to resolve themselves one by one, you get the sense that it was the means and not the end that the Coens were interested in, which, while not inherently bad, does tend to result in movies that are more satisfying for the filmmaker than they are for the viewer.
But what ultimately makes Hail, Caesar! feel like a Coen Brothers minor work is not its general madcap attitude (a tone that the pair has gotten better at since Burn After Reading) but its overwhelming optimism. Hail, Caesar!, for all its political undertones, is a fundamentally conservative movie. In fact, it’s downright Reaganesque in its glorification of the olden days of the studio system, which is surprising given the fact that the last three original scripts that the Coens have written and directed were about as cynical or downright nihilistic as mainstream Hollywood movies ever dare to be. Compare the last ten minutes of Hail, Caesar! to the final acts of A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis and one might be hard pressed to identify all three as the work of the same writers. And apart from the discussions that take place in the house to which Whitlock is brought after he is kidnapped (which could, and might, warrant their own analysis in a separate piece), Hail, Caesar! is decidedly apolitical, skimming over the darker aspects of the Studio Era with a nod and a wink. For a pair of writers so keen on deconstructing nearly every aspect of the American Experience, the Coens are surprisingly content to depict the ancestor of their own industry as a more or less honest business full of good-natured, fun-loving people whose only goal at the end of the day is to make quality films. Hail, Caesar! is the lightest-hearted, and least-caloric, Coen Brothers movie to date, and it feels just about right for a February release.