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HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) review

February 6, 2016

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written by: Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen
produced by: Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
directed by: Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen
rated PG (for moments of mild language, violence and sensuality)
runtime: 100 min. 
U.S. release date: February 5, 2016

 

Just as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was the Star Wars-iest of all Star Wars movies, “Hail, Caesar!” could easily by the Cohens-iest of all Cohen Bros. movies. It’s a movie that recalls with a knowing smirk the previous comedies given to us by writer/producer/director brothers, Joel and Ethan Cohen – and by now, you should know whether or not you fall into the crowd that enjoys their brand of humor. As a Cohen Bros. loyalist, I find that I mostly enjoy their comedies – although (gasp!) I haven’t shined on to “The Big Lebowski” like everyone else in the world – but I prefer their dramas. That being said, I do enjoy movies set in 1950s Hollywood and I like it when filmmakers pay homage and satirize that era – and that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” does best.

For some, it’ll come across as disjointed as it dabbles in a handful of genres as we tour through films that are being made on the studio lot of fictional Capital Pictures (which will sound familiar, if you’ve seen “Barton Fink”), but I get a kick out. What’s it about? Well, there’s a simple plot that stretches throughout that finds movie star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, the Coens favorite doofus), getting kidnapped from the set of his latest movie, a Biblical epic entitled “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ”, which is an obvious (and welcome) riff on “Ben-Hur” (therefore, Clooney is obviously lampooning Charlton Heston, although he looks more like Tony Curtis). On the case is Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who keeps the studio’s children, er – actors, out of the tabloids, er – trouble.

 

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The Coens are guiding us through a busy couple of days in the work life of Mannix and they’re a doozy. He has to keep arrogant and entitled directors, like Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and Arne Slessum (Christopher Lambert), encouraged and on task. On the set of a synchronized swimming musical, Mannix lets unmarried starlet, DeeAnne Morgan (Scarlett Johansson), know that he’s going to have to spin her pregnancy, so she’ll still be in good standing with the public – maybe marry her off or hire investigator, Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) to lend a hand. He also has to figure out a way to make an actor out of eager-yet-limited actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s made a name for himself as a low-grade Roy Rogers, but the studio is pushing him to genres he just doesn’t fit in order to guarantee hits.

Mannix has Natalie (Heather Goldenhersh), an aide that keeps him on task, but these are his job duties and if he has to slap around an actor or two, so be it – as long as the picture stays on schedule and goes off without a hitch. At the same time, Mannix is being courted by Lockheed Martin, a company offering a cushier job with less hours, which is what his wife (Alison Pill) would love – maybe he’d get to see his two kids more too. We get the idea though, that Mannix wouldn’t really know what to do anywhere else and that he’s really the best at what he does. He knows how to hold off Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), twin competing gossip columnists, as he tries to get to the bottom of who kidnapped the studio’s movie star. Could song-and-dance man, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who’s currently filming a catchy sailor musical, be involved in any way?

 

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“Hail, Caesar!” isn’t so much about a kidnapping as it is about presenting a Lazy Susan of stock characters from this era of Hollywood filmmaking in a series of clever and quite hilarious moments, from start to finish. Some of these scenes are humorous due to the Coens dialogue or just because of what is transpiring – like when Mannix calls together a meeting of four theologians from different denominations (Robert Picardo plays an acerbic rabbi, Robert Pike Daniel as a Catholic priest, Allan Harvey as a Protestant pastor and Aramazd Stepanian as an Eastern Orthodox clergyman – it all plays like a joke, and it is) to find out whether or not the sword and sandals flick in production will offend audiences. There’s a comical scene where Brolin’s Mannix visits a curmudgeonly veteran editor named C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand, stealing her scenes) to go over key footage that may provide answers to the kidnapping. The scene where Clooney’s Baird Whitlock meets his kidnappers, a group who call themselves The Future, is very memorable as well, primarily because of Whitlock’s response to his situation and how he responds to his captors (all very much in line with the Cohen supporting characters we’ve seen in previous films). Like the Coen’s other comedies, much of the humor here is contextual – providing straight forward situations for odd and funny characters (who are often quite serious) to inhabit and respond to.

Most of the actors in “Hail, Caesar!” have worked at least one Coen Bros. film before (like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coens often work with a chosen troupe), so seeing the filmmakers work with some new actors (for them) is a treat and also a discovery. Indeed, the standouts are some of the new blood – such as Johansson, who,  as a sassy Esther Williams-type, fits in perfectly with the look and attitude of the era. Ehrenreich though, as the  dim bulb hayseed is quite the find and his one specific scene with Fiennes, where they go over and over one line will be remembered by year’s end. The comic timing and length did me in and had me in stitches. He also has a great scene on a ridiculous Western musical where he’s warbling (lip-syncing, actually) that movie’s title song, “Lazy Old Moon”. Speaking of singing, Tatum is given a chance to show off his chops, when he sings the homoerotic “No Dames”, while dancing along with his sailor costars. He may be a surprise for some viewers, but I’ve known Tatum had the makings of a renaissance actor for a while now. His work here proves that his range might not be as limited as some think, giving him a chance to show his talent for physical comedy in a winning manner.

 

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There’s several other recognizable character actors that show up who are great here. There are two that come to mind who play actors in the actual “Caesar” movie – Wayne Knight as Lurking Extra #1 and Clancy Brown as a Roman soldier and then there’s Patrick Fischler, Fisher Stevens and Fred Melamed, who portray characters involved in the kidnapping. Notice, those are five guys – meaning this was a time where there were very few women who were directors or screenwriters in the business. So, it’s no wonder “Hail, Caesar!” tips heavily on the testosterone side. It also happens to have a screenplay which mocks or pokes fun at just about every male character in the film with the women making them even more foolish.

From a pure visual aspect, “Hail, Caesar!” looks great. Production designer Jess Gonchor delivers an impressive recreation of the studio backlot environment of the time. Costumer designer Mary Gophers (who’s worked on several Coen Bros. productions) doesn’t just have the fedoras and tailored dresses of the period to contend with, but Roman armor, sailor suits and mermaid costumes as well. It all looks great as lenses by longtime Coens collaborator, Richard Deakins, whose cinematography is expectedly pristine. As far as the sound of the film, another Coen staple, composer Carter Burwell returns with a score that’s heavy on the sound of the films that were being shot back then – from the bombastic horns of the ancient Roman flicks to big band and the moody jazz that often accompanies noir. Both the film’s look and sound is top-notch and is one of the reasons I’m interested in seeing it again on the big-screen.

I had absolutely no problem with the Coens emphasizing moments over a connective storyline arc, but one thing that left me scratching my head was their inclusion and stance on religion here – specifically Christianity. They’ve touched on religion before and here it’s both contextual and overt. The film opens with a statue of a crucified Christ (which immediately reminded me of Tarantino’s recent “Hateful Eight”) and it also includes a scene shot at Golgotha, both for the Ben-Hur-like movie. We also see Mannix, a devout Catholic in confession a couple times, which is meant to be humorous, as it often is in movies. Sure, he’s devout but that doesn’t make him a spiritual man. When cameras are finally rolling on Baird Whitlock delivering his climatic speech at the foot of the cross, it crescendos into an inspiring and rousing event – until he loses faith, literally. That’s obviously a statement about lost or misguided faith (which Coens have covered before), but then again what they’re hinting at with religion also feels similar to what they’re saying about capitalism (and maybe socialism) – two other/similar institutions. None of that is offensive to me, I just wasn’t quite sure where they’re were going with it all. Any message on either just seems hinted at. I’m sure my perception will change after additional viewings though.

 

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Either way, I’m not looking for a deep message or a clever metaphor when I watch a Coen Bros. comedy. Of course, there will be underlying statements or jabs, but it’s the clever dialogue and intermittent laughs that make the experience worthwhile for me and “Hail, Caesar!” definitely delivers in those areas. As the brothers maintain their idiosyncrasies, one area that winds up suffering slightly is the film’s ending, which feels uncertain about its closure. That could just be my initial take from my first viewing of the film though.

What they’re essentially doing here is riffing those Preston Sturges comedies, just as they have in the past. To me, it felt like Jim Abrams and the Zucker Bros. “Top Secret!” (which was a send-up of WWII films) felt into a mixer with Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” (an homage to Hollywood noir), with a dash of Jay Roach’s recent “Trumbo” (touched on the red scare during the Hollywood blacklist) and out came “Hail Caesar!”.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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