Hail, Caesar!

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/04/16 15:57:34

"The Man Who Was Everywhere"
5 stars (Awesome)

Every few years, Joel & Ethan Coen take a bit of a break from their meticulously crafted and highly artistic productions—things like “Barton Fink,” “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”—in order to make something deliberately broad and goofy as all get out, such as “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Burn After Reading.” These film are enormously entertaining, of course, but with the possible exception of “Lebowski,” I am not entirely certain that I would include any of them in a discussion of what I felt were their finest and most memorable films. Now, after a recent string of relatively sober-minded films that included “A Serious Man,” the “True Grit” remake and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” they have once again gone to the goofball side with their latest effort, “Hail, Caesar!,” but this time around, they have attached the wackiness to a narrative and characters as strong and complex as those found in their finest films. The end result is the first genuinely great film of 2016—not that there is much competition for that title—and if I were forced to be make a ranking of all the Coen Brothers joints (as so many on the Internet seem to be doing these days), there is a fairly good chance that this love note/poison pen letter to the Hollywood studio system that was long dead before the Coens began making films themselves would wind up placing very near the top of that list.

The film is set in the early Fifties, a time when Hollywood was still in its Golden Age and the unquestioned leader of selling dreams to the masses, although the increasing prevalence of television is making those in charge more than a little nervous as to what the future holds. Our hero is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is the so-called “fixer” of Capitol Pictures—the guy who is called on to straighten things out if a film starts going over budget or a star is caught in an unsavory situation. Over the course of the long day and night covered in the film, Eddie finds himself juggling a number of challenges that begin with the before-dawn rescue of an up-and-coming starlet caught in “a potential French postcard situation.” He finds himself chairing a meeting of representatives of the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths to vet the theological elements of the screenplay of their currently shooting biblical epic, “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ” that turns into an interfaith debate about seemingly everything but the script. One of the studios most popular actresses, the seemingly virtuous DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), is now pregnant and since the father is already married, a solution has to be found lest a scandal erupt. Meanwhile, prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has been ordered to give one of the lead roles in his prestigious drawing room drama “Merrily We Dance” to one of the studio’s new stars, singing cowboy sensation Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich), and while the kid is trying his best, he literally cannot speak the dialogue that he has been given. (The scene in which Laurence tries to coach Hobie into saying “Would that it were so simple,” a line that would be hard enough for a good actor to pull off convincingly, is arguably the film’s comedic high point.) To top it all off, Eddie is also mulling over an incredibly lucrative offer from Lockheed to work for them in order to help usher the world into the upcoming nuclear age.

And yet, all of these problems pale in comparison to the one that develops when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the logy and impassive star of “Hail, Caesar!,” disappears from the set during a break in filming. At first, it is assumed that he has either gone off on a bender or is fooling around with one of the comelier extras but when a note arrives demanding $100,000 for his return by something calling itself The Future, it is clear that something else is up. With Baird’s immediate presence a necessity in order to complete the shooting of “Hail Caesar!,” Eddie now finds himself arranging for the ransom and trying to figure out who might have taken him while at the same time trying to keep all news of the incident away from the press, especially from the ears of rival twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton in a dual role). As it turns out, Baird has been taken by a cabal of screenwriters who have joined the Communist Party and have been slipping propaganda into their scripts as a way of protesting their exploitation at the hand of those in charge at Das Capitol and the other studios. Oddly enough, the amiably lunkish star proves to be an unusually receptive audience for their grievances and soon finds himself swayed by their arguments. With all this going on, it is no wonder that Eddie finds himself sneaking the occasional smoke despite having just quit, even though the mere act of lighting up is enough to send the devout family man scurrying to confession.

Although the Coen Brothers have often made movies that allowed them to explore and occasionally goof on traditionally cinematic genre conventions, “Hail, Caesar!” is their first since “Barton Fink” to be explicitly set in the moviemaking world. The difference is that while “Barton Fink” was a caustic satire-cum-horror film that suggested a bizarre merging of Nathanael West and Roman Polanski, this film is a far more genial and goofy effort that nevertheless manages to offer up some serious food for thought amidst the silliness. There is a certain cynicism from their depiction of the myriad behind-the-scenes manipulations that were undertaken in order to sell the notion that the people in the film industry were all virtuous idealists and dreamers who hardly went to the bathroom, let alone indulged in the darker desires that they could easily afford, a number of which are drawn from real-life Hollywood lore. (There really was an Eddie Mannix who solved problems at MGM back in the day and his solution to the problem with the pregnant actress is remarkably similar to the one he allegedly cooked up for Loretta Young when she found herself in a similar situation.) And yet, even as they depict the industry as being run by greedheads and weirdos who are far more interested in making a buck than in making art, they nevertheless demonstrate an undeniable affection for the studio system process and the power that their products had to move and inspire viewers, oftentimes in spite of themselves. Throughout most of the film, for example, we see clips from “Hail, Caesar!” that make it look like just another one of the lavishly appointed borefests that made up the vast majority of the Biblical epics of the era. However, when it comes time for Baird to deliver his final speech, it unexpectedly rings true with such clarity and resonance that even those who have been laughing all the way through the film may find themselves disarmed by its power despite being a otherwise silly movie within an otherwise silly movie. Eddie may find himself torn between presenting the public with the sanitized dreams of Hollywood and the grim nightmares of Lockheed but there is no doubt as to which side the Coens ultimately belong

The obvious affection that the Coens have for this particular era of Hollywood filmmaking—one that their own singular cinematic style would have almost certainly been incompatible with—is obvious in virtually every frame of this film. I suspect that one of the driving inspirations for “Hail, Caesar!” was to give them a chance to stage their own miniature versions of once-popular cinematic subgenres that not even they could manage to fully revive today. There is an impeccably choreographed water ballet number featuring Johansson that is virtually indistinguishable from those performed by Esther Williams back in the day. There is a scene from the new film from the singing cowboy and while it may not be exactly accurate from a historical standpoint (such films were never produced on the scale scene here and that particular subgenre was long gone before the advent of the Fifties), it is still entertaining to watch. The “Hail, Caesar!” scenes hilariously capture all the nuances of the old-fashioned Biblical epics, especially the odd juxtaposition between their visual splendor and the beyond-clunky sound of the pseudo-period dialogue being delivered by bored actors more concerned with being heard than with being understood. Best of all is a scene depicting the filming of a musical number for an “Anchors Aweigh”-type musical with Channing Tatum in the Gene Kelly role leading a bunch of fellow sailors in intricately choreographed song and dance in a bar that is trying to close for the night. The scene begins as a spoof and works wonderfully as one but as it goes on, it subtly transforms into a genuine musical number and an uncommonly impressive one at that—one that in terms of ambition, execution and utter exuberance puts most straightforward musicals of late to shame. (If I had to compare its blend of hilarity and sheer cinematic craft to anything, it would be to the jaw-dropping U.S.O. sequence that Steven Spielberg put together in his still-underrated “1941.”

No doubt befitting a film of this type, “Hail, Caesar!” features an all-star cast and is generous enough to give them all their individual moments to shine. As the eternally straight man negotiating his way through the crazies that dominate his daily existence, Josh Brolin turns in his best performance since collaborating with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men” by supplying a strong and sure center that gives the stranger stuff something to bounce out of and allows the more philosophical concerns to shine through. George Clooney always seems to come alive when playing a dopey guy for the Coens and he gets a lot of laughs here with his affectionate spoof of the likes of Charlton Heston, Richard Burton and any other actor who has ever donned a centurion miniskirt in order to make a buck. Johansson’s character sometimes gets a little lost in the shuffle but she make the most of her time on screen with a hilarious turn as the studio cash cow who is not as innocent as she seems. As the singing cowboy star who is seemingly lost without a lasso in his hand, Alden Ehrenreich (who you probably didn’t see in films such as Francis Coppola’s odd art film “Tetro” and the would-be franchise starter “Beautiful Creatures”) is probably the least-known major member of the cast but pretty much steals the entire film with his very funny performance as a very bad actor. Even though they only get one scene apiece, Frances McDormand (as the head of the studio editorial department) and Jonah Hill (who plays an unusually trustworthy man) make such vivid impressions that one could see entire films being built around their characters.

As I said, “Hail, Caesar!” is the first great film of 2016—an endearingly loopy romp that still manages to work in some serious ideas amidst all the nuttiness. That said, while predicting how a Coen Brothers film will be received by the general public is always a challenge (bear in mind that the now-venerated “The Big Lebowski” was largely overlooked when it first came out while few could have predicted that efforts like “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” would become breakout hits), I have absolutely no idea how this one will fare with the general public. The shaggy dog kidnapping storyline that supposedly drives the narrative is handled in such an offhand manner that it makes “The Big Lebowski” seem tight and focused by comparison. Historians may blanch at the way that the Communist writer’s bloc is depicted, though I would take the portrayal here over the pretentiously dull likes of “Trumbo” in an instant. Also, while a working knowledge of Hollywood history is not necessarily a requirement for seeing the film, those who do will probably come away from it with a greater appreciation of what the Coens have achieved here. That said, this is still a magnificently entertaining film—the kind that can give a moviegoer renewed faith even after enduring the likes of “Dirty Grandpa” or “Fifty Shades of Black”—and if you somehow come away from it having resisted its nutty charms, you might want to look into a career at Lockheed yourself.

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