‘Hail, Caesar!’ Is Great, But Would Be Even Better If The Women Got To Talk More: Movie Review

by Erika W. Smith

The Coen Brothers are back with Hail, Caesar!, an homage to Old Hollywood. Set around a major Hollywood studio in the 1950s, the film has more plotlines than I can count on both hands, all centered around a busy, stressed-out studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who’s just trying to make it the day without sneaking a cigarette.

Here are just a few problems that the fixer has to fix: The studio’s biggest star (George Clooney) goes missing right in the middle of filming a majorly expensive film, Hail, Caesar: A Story Of The Christ (basically a Coen-ified Ben-Hur). At first, the studio thinks he’s on a bender, but then they realize he’s been kidnapped by Communists — led by a singing, tap-dancing actor (Channing Tatum). An “aquamusical” star (Scarlett Johansson) is too pregnant to fit into her mermaid costume — and, worse, she’s unmarried, which is at odds with her sweet and innocent image. The studio heads are demanding that Mannix turn a Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who can lasso anything but can’t act into a Clark Gable-type dramatic actor — and the drama’s pretentious director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), can’t believe he has to work with him. Oh, and twin gossip journalists with rival columns (both played by Tilda Swinton) are trying to get to the bottom of most of these stories.


These characters are all fully realized and a lot of fun to watch, but so many of them get just one or two scenes — especially the women. Scarlett Johannson is being marketed as the female lead, and she probably has the biggest female role, but her screen time still tops out at about three scenes — long scenes, good scenes, but still just three. Frances McDormand gets a cameo as an accident-prone film editor in one great scene that ends all too soon — I wanted so much more. Tilda Swinton’s characters get a total of maybe four short scenes, combined, even though they’re one of the best parts of the film. Alison Pill plays Mannix’s wife — she appears in one scene and is in a blurry background talking about pot roast for most of it. Even the smallest female roles were so fully realized that I wanted much more than a handful of lines from them: Veronica Osorio plays a Carmen Miranda-type star, Heather Goldenhersh plays a very capable but stressed-out secretary, and Natasha Bassett appears in an early scene as a sexy ingenue trying to find a way to make money outside of her studio contract. 

On the other hand, the two biggest subplots are both centered around men, and they could both have been trimmed down considerably. We spend a lot of time watching George Clooney’s character get friendly with his Communist kidnappers, and we spend a lot of time watching that Western star lasso stuff. There are several physical jokes that repeat: How many times do we have to watch George Clooney’s character accidentally sit on his costume sword? I’d have gladly lost a few of these scenes for a bigger plot surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s character, or for just one more scene with Frances McDormand. As you might guess, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.

I understand that not every movie has to center around women, but what frustrates me about Hail, Caesar! is that the female characters had so much promise. These aren’t just boring, blank-slate “wives and girlfriends,” they’re so fully realized that I’d love to see them in their own movies. And I know the Coen Brothers could do it — just look at Fargo.

Until next time, I’ll just be here watching this ScarJo clip on YouTube and wishing it was a feature-length film.


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