Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Full of humor and overflowing with the kind of rich themes you expect from the Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a delightful romp through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Hail, Caesar!
Writers/Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

The film is inspired by the real life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a "fixer" for the fictional Capitol Pictures whose responsibility is to shape and control public perception of the company's stars. He's the all-purpose leader of the studio, constantly putting out fires and paying people off to avoid any scandals that may be uncovered by the Thacker sisters — one a journalist and the other a gossip columnist, both played by Tilda Swinton. (The fact that the sisters are identical twins and that their work is also often indistinguishable is one of the many pieces of sly commentary slipped into the story by the Coens.) In a whirlwind 24-hour period, Mannix must engineer a way for one of his starlets (Scarlett Johansson) to keep her child out of wedlock without losing the sheen of innocence the studio has crafted for her, and pacify British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who's irate because drawling Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been cast in one of Laurentz's sophisticated drawing room dramas against the director's will.

Oh, and he also has to find Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of the studio's biggest stars who was kidnapped from the studio lot and is being ransomed by a mysterious organization known only as The Future.

The movie is a love letter to the studio films of the 1950s, and the Coens create multiple movies within this movie, including the Biblical epic (and Ben-Hur homage) Hail, Caesar!, which gives this film its title. The directors showcase their vast array of filmmaking skills by flawlessly recreating a number of different genres, from Busby Berkeley-esque kaleidoscopic aquatic dazzlers to classic shoot-em-up westerns. But their most impressive recreation is a showstopping sequence led by Channing Tatum's Burt Gurney, dressed as a sailor and dancing his way through an jaw-droppingly choreographed rendition of a song that'd be right at home in a Gene Kelly musical.

Clooney continues to have a lot of fun playing absolute morons in Coen movies, and Baird Whitlock certainly ranks as one of the dumbest he's ever embodied. In her dual roles, Swinton also seems to relish the opportunity to play her parts for laughs. Fiennes is pitch perfect as the flustered Laurence Laurentz, and he's responsible for some of the film's funniest line readings. Tatum has more going on that initially meets the eye, and Brolin does very good work as the problem solver in the middle of all of the zaniness. The rest of the actors have small parts (despite being on the poster and showing up at the press junket, Jonah Hill is in the movie for approximately four minutes), but as far as I'm concerned, the breakout is Alden Ehrenreich as Western movie yokel Hobie Doyle. Ehrenreich is best known as the male lead in the awful-looking supernatural young adult movie Beautiful Creatures from a few years ago, but he fits remarkably well in this heightened world.

As is often the case with the Coens, religious themes permeate the film. The fictional Hail, Caesar's subtitle, A Tale of The Christ, prompts Mannix to gather a group of diverse religious leaders in the hopes they'll grant their approval to the movie so it won't offend anyone; that scene in particular is a terrific piece of writing and easily one of the film's best moments. Mannix seemingly spends more time in confession at church than he does being at home with his own family. But there are less overt and more interesting examples, too: when the actor playing Jesus in Hail, Caesar! is strapped to the cross, an assistant director with a clipboard comes by between takes and asks whether he's a principle or an extra, a question that takes on a larger significance if viewed from a different perspective. There's also a fascinating discussion to be had about the way the Coens comment on Communism here, but it would involve spoiling one of the film's big reveals, so I'll leave that for another article.

I tend to like movies about movies, because old Hollywood is a subject that's always fascinated me (for more on this topic, including an in-depth piece about the real Eddie Mannix, check out Karina Longworth's wonderful "You Must Remember This" podcast), so I was predisposed to like Hail, Caesar! based on the premise alone. But the movie actually lived up to and surpassed my expectations, largely because of the way the film is soaked in the atmosphere of the time and rewards deep engagement with its themes. Gorgeous, glamorous, and hilarious, Hail, Caesar! is one of the funniest and richest films of the Coens' storied filmography.

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