MOVIE REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!



For this writer and website, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen are pegged as acquired tastes.  Slot the brothers and their work right next to Quentin Tarantino in that regard.  Their creative brilliance and their reverent place in the upper echelon of superb storytellers are indisputable, proven by their six Oscar wins.  Sometimes, in the measure of taste, their choices and results are a maddening or confounding mess.  When the Coen brothers are on their game, they are white hot.  "Hail, Caesar!" won't go down as one of their best, but there is no denying its draw as a thoroughly entertaining hoot.  

Set in the classic and indulgent days of major studio filmmaking in the 1950s, the film is captained by Josh Brolin playing historical Hollywood figure Eddie Mannix, Head of Physical Production.  Under the fancy title, the devout Catholic and married man is a "fixer" who worked to shield the studio from any bad press or detrimental conduct of their high-profile employees both on and off the set.  Eddie works for the fictional Capital Pictures (the real Mannix was an MGM man) in West Hollywood and runs on clockwork.  His range of problem-solving could involve anything from deflecting gossip columnists, assuaging tiffs, paying off cops, to even a good, old-fashioned slap in the face or two.  Without his spit, glue, and sandpaper tactics, the precarious scaffold of egos, artists, booze, money, and high expectations falls apart.  Needless to say, Mannix's plate is full each and every day.  

In 1951, his gamut of troubleshooting includes a twice-divorced and now-pregnant starlet named DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), dodging competing identical twin journalists (Tilda Swinton), and convincing classical British director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) into taking on young Western movie hero Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his latest prestige picture.  Mannix is also mulling a lucrative job offer to leave the movie industry for a cushy job with Lockheed Martin.  Highest in priority is Capital Pictures completing its highly anticipated epic production of "Hail, Caesar!"  The boastful leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, putting his classic Caesar haircut to accurate use) stars as a Roman centurion who converts his faith while witnessing the works of Christ.

Mannix's multitasking gets decidedly worse and more expensive when Baird Whitlock goes missing from the "Hail, Caesar!" set.  The oblivious actor is kidnapped by a secret underground group of Communist sympathizers and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters, who whisk him away to a swanky and secluded Malibu beach house.  It takes multiple efforts on multiple fronts for Mannix to fix this latest pickle while still juggling the other Capital Picture issues.

Brolin carries the picture that has a top-line filled with marque favorites, including Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, and those already mentioned.  The A-listers are predominantly window dressing of glorified cameos.  The real stars are the little supporting background roles of secretaries, writers, and the like, filled by veteran character actors like Heather Goldenhersh, Max Baker, Greg BaldwinRobert Picardo, and others.  They deal more of the zingers that dazzle when interacting with Brolin's confidence, Clooney's screwball, or the other big names.  Joel and Ethan always seem to extract talent from every player in their deep and skillful ensembles. 

The film is molded as a merger of both satire and homage to this time period of cinema.  Between a boisterous song-and-dance number from Tatum's Burt Gurney character and a vivid synchronized swimming display involving Jonansson's Moran, "Hail, Caesar!" contains magnificent sequences and elaborate set pieces that evoke an admiration to that era.  Peppered slang like "swell," "louse," and "cut the mustard" play like "give the high hat" from "Miller's Crossing."  Created with impeccable period detail and unlimited panache, the showmanship of Joel and Ethan Coen is off the charts.

True to their signature creativity, the Coen brothers still put their delicious varnish of black comedy on "Hail, Caesar!"  With its perfectly recreated production value, the filmmakers riff on those outdated stylings and cliches with a modern wit and an overt tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.  The laughs come easy, but so do the extravagant storytelling indulgences.  The film slips with disorganization and too many random and fanciful coincidences.  Style outweighs substance and still makes "Hail, Caesar!" a catchy Hollywood amusement. 

LESSON #1: NO ONE THIS SIDE OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN KNOWS WHAT A "MIRTHLESS CHUCKLE" SOUNDS LIKE OR "RUEFULNESS" LOOKS LIKE-- The King's English is lost on all of us Americans, especially hayseed cowboys.  Picture Larry the Cable Guy talking to Laurence Olivier and heads exploding.  "Woulditwere" so simple.

LESSON #2: DEVOTION TO A COOL, BUT DIFFICULT JOB-- Mannix specializes in fitting square pegs into round holes.  He works too late and is drained every day, but he keeps coming back.  He sees the fun and enterprise of being part of the movies.  An ordinary job wouldn't fuel the same zeal.  

LESSON #3: OLD HOLLYWOOD STANDING AS A PEAK OF CAPITALISM-- In tribute, when you (and also Mannix) step back from the side dealings, selfishness, scandals, and farce of playing make believe in front of cameras in costumes and makeup, you will see the movie business as a powerful player in America's capitalistic society.  The industry drives economy and employs thousands high and low as a rich and artistic outlet of the American Dream that sets us apart from other countries.