Sometimes a film defies definition. Occasionally that's because it's a unique, genre-redefining, rule-breaking classic; one of those movies that appear as if from nowhere and find an audience through wildfire word-of-mouth. In other cases however, it's because the film is a confusing, ill-disciplined mess. The Coen brothers' latest, Hail Caesar! – a star-studded ensemble set in Hollywood's 1950s Golden Age – definitely fits into one of those two categories.
The plot, as much as it can be trailed or explained, follows 24 hours in the life of studio-runner Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to keep the wheels turning on the various productions on his lot. The most prominent and expensive of these is Hail Caesar!, an epic retelling of the Roman Centurion who stood before the crucified Christ which is bizarrely close to the actual 2016 film Risen, out later this month. George Clooney plays said Centurion and is close to completing the picture, but when he's kidnapped by communist screenwriters, the movie and Mannix's life are thrown into disarray.
The kidnap is just one of various loosely inter-woven strands, all of which centre on Mannix, a Catholic who's preoccupied with the question of what God wants him to do with his life. Opening and closing in a confessional chamber, the film repeatedly returns to religious themes and imagery, although it's hard to argue that it's making any sort of point by doing so.
In fact, it's hard to understand quite what Hail Caesar! is trying to be at all. With its huge choreographed set pieces – long-winded tap dancing sailors and Scarlett Johannsson-focussed synchronised swimming among them – it's perhaps at its best when it's operating as a straight homage to a bygone cinematic era. But then with its cast of ever-so-quirky characters and over-hammed performances, it also seems to be poking fun at movie studios and the capitalists behind them. And that's the biggest problem with Hail Caesar!: it doesn't know whether it's a tribute or a parody. If it's meant as the former, then a number of the cast need acting lessons. And if it's meant to be the latter, then it certainly needs to be a lot funnier.
You want a comedy to make you laugh – out loud, and if possible, throughout. Hail Caesar! provides plenty of smirks, but arguably only one real laugh, and that requires a five-minute setup earlier on. The homages are desperately in need of some slapstick, but never want to deliver it; the opportunities for comic punches are pulled because the film wants you to know how clever it is. From the trailer you might imagine this to be a madcap caper; in fact it's confusing, poorly-paced, lifeless and a bit boring. Famous luminaries (including Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum) keep walking onto the screen and joining in with being boring too. I'm sure Coen aficionados will be incensed by such a review, but I found the whole thing terribly disappointing. I go to the cinema to be entertained and intellectually stimulated, not to feel superior to the people in the audience who didn't get all the clever references.
For the Christian viewer, the film does at least include a couple of moments to furnish future sermon illustrations. Early on, the film contains arguably the most Christian-subculture-friendly scene of modern times, as three Christian ministers and a Rabbi argue over the nature of the Trinity before a non-plussed Mannix. And in the film-within-a-film, the final speech of George Clooney's centurion is confusingly spine-tingling considering that it seems to take place in the context of gentle satire. Even if it's intentionally stylised, it's actually a beautiful piece of acting.
Hail Caesar! is meant to provide an insight into what happens when Hollywood icons have too much power, and ironically that's exactly what the film seems to suggest about it's own writer/director/producers. One can only speculate that the film was a product of a yes-man culture which held the Coen's in untouchable regard. Much like Sacha Baron Coen's awful Grimsby, released last week, some films are just in need of a world-class editor and someone who's prepared to say that an idea sucks.
Fascinatingly, the whole deception seems to have been enabled by US critics, who in the most part have come out in favour of the film, perhaps because none of them dares being seen as the one who didn't 'get it' (unless, of course, that's me). One, in The New Yorker, even calls it "uproarious" – as accurate a description as calling a Big Mac nutritious. Filmgoers, thankfully, have been more accurate in their appreciation, as were my fellow audience-goers, who filed out of the theatre in a state of head-shaking bemusement. I've no doubt that fans of the Coen brothers will love the film. Everyone else will probably end up wondering what on earth they just watched.