Review: Hail, Caesar!
PLOT: An overextended studio fixer attempts to navigate several blossoming crises over the course of a few days, the most severe of which is the kidnapping of one of the studio's biggest movie stars.
REVIEW: You might say HAIL, CAESAR! is the most personal movie the Coen brothers have ever made. It's far from their deepest or most resonant, mind you, but in a way it's their most carefree; the Coens doing exactly what they want, cohesive narrative or widely-accessible entertainment be damned. It is funny in parts, for sure, but in such an offbeat and curious way that it's sure to really only tickle those who unabashedly appreciate the brothers' quirky sense of humor; even a Coens diehard like myself wasn't always enamored with just how idiosyncratic HAIL, CAESAR! often becomes. It doesn't fire on all cylinders, but even minor Coen brothers is better than most Hollywood output.
We've seen the Coens write scripts that are practically airtight (FARGO and MILLER'S CROSSING come to mind) but we also know that they're often unable to contain themselves when it comes to injecting out of left field sequences and jokes that seem only funny to them. The Coens love inflicting the randomness of the universe on their characters - and by extension, the audience - and Hail, Caesar! often feels like one big whimsical aside. It's all surreal tangent; the narrative has basically been left on the cutting room floor. The film does have a plot, of sorts, but it's incidental and nearly drama-free; what really interests the Coens this time around is the Hollywood of old. HAIL, CAESAR! gives them a chance to conceive some of the most recognizable genres from a bygone era as meticulously as can be. And for these fleeting moments, their movie is worth the price of admission.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a serious, sincere movie studio boss who has a lot on his plate, every single day. In a world of preening, insecure, petty stars and directors, he's the one to call to get them out of a jam, be it personal or professional. Mannix stalks to the backlot of Capitol Pictures hurriedly, but without noticeable stress, like a teacher dealing with unruly students. He's a good man, too, the type that goes to confession almost every day to admit he lied to his wife about quitting smoking, and his commitment to the production of quality pictures is without question. But it's getting a bit too much lately, and an offer on the table from airline manufacturer Lockheed - which promises steady hours in an adult environment - is weighing on his mind. The last thing he needs is another of his infantile actors getting themselves into a quagmire, but that's exactly what happens when A-list bozo Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a mysterious group called The Future. It's up to Mannix to both find Baird and keep the news away from concerned studio execs and lurking gossip columnists.
Surrounding this are a melange of subplots that all serve the Coens' clear wish to both poke fun at Hollywood and lovingly recreate - in their own peculiar way - classic examples of 40s/50s studio fare. There's an acrobatic singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich), not big in the acting or smarts departments, who is suddenly plucked out of his comfort zone and thrown into a glamorous melodrama overseen by a finicky director (Ralph Fiennes). There's a beautiful starlet (Scarlett Johansson) attempting to hide her out-of-wedlock pregnancy by scheming to adopt her own baby. There's a couple of twin sisters (Tilda Swinton) who are rival gossip columnists trying to get the big (read: facile) scoops on the Baird Whitlock situation and more.
The Brolin character has to navigate all this, but in a way that more suggests a private eye in a film noir than studio head, although it would be inaccurate to describe this as a suspense story of any kind. The kidnapping leads to a series of strange conversations between Clooney and his abductors, but no thrills are sought and the central mystery culminates in a surreal visual joke. The threads of the other subplots eventually, loosely, meld together, but it's not the Coens' wish to make all this snap together in an airtight manner. As narrative, Hail, Caesar meanders and sputters, and while that may be by design, it's hardly satisfying. Even when the Coens at their most frivolous - THE LADYKILLERS or BURN AFTER READING - their plots are usually finely constructed, and HAIL, CAESAR! is an often dawdling affair.
But the boys dish out so many amusing moments, it's hard to get too mad at them. The movie really shines when they get to make their own 50s-style epics; Johansson's character is an Esther Williams-type, and we see her engaging in a lovely aquatic dance number (that brings to mind the Coen' Busby Berkeley numbers in THE BIG LEBOWSKI). The singing cowboy's attempts to nail dramatic dialogue prove hopeless, and his interactions with his impatient director are highly amusing. The religious epic Clooney's character is working on is earnest and overblown. But wait till you get a look at Channing Tatum singing and dancing sailor in a hilariously homoerotic number; not only is the sequence fantastically accomplished, but Tatum is unbelievable in it, nailing every beat.
As can be counted upon, the film both looks great; the period detail is outstanding and not a single thing appears to be out of place. The Coens are among the best ever at assembling a cast, and they haven't missed a beat here. Clooney is at his dopey best; Johnansson utilizes a frighteningly good New Jersey accent; Swinton is reliably flawless in both her roles (really the same role); and Fiennes is marvelous in a short but scene-stealing role. The true standout (aside from Tatum during that dance number) is Ehrenreich, the only relative unknown here. As a sweet but lunkheaded ranch hand turned movie star, he has both old school movie star looks and sublime comedic timing; he's a real find by the Coens (you might know him from the seriously lame Beautiful Creatures but probably little else). There's also a bevy of small, fun roles for recognizable characters actors like Clancy Brown, Robert Picardo, Peter Jason, Fisher Stevens and even Christopher Lambert! With HAIL, CAESAR! the Coens haven't knocked it out of the park, but they sure have put together a fine team for a decent effort.
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