February 3, 2016

Movie Review: HAIL, CAESAR!

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Emily Beecham, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Christopher Lambert (really!), Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, Clancy Brown, Dolph Lundgren (seriously!). Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen. (2016, 106 min).

I'll say this much...you'll know Hail, Caesar! is undoubtedly a Coen Brothers film within the first few minutes, which is a good thing. Their movies are a genre unto themselves, and those who appreciate the Coens' creative sensibilities know it's essentially pointless to compare one of their films to anything else but other Coen films. Even then, they've cut such a wide swatch through so many genres that you can't simply examine The Big Lebowski in the same light as No Country for Old Men.

For the sake of simplicity, there are the 'serious' Coen films (which get all the Oscar nominations) and the 'playful' Coen films (where everyone involved seems to be having a great time), and it never ceases to amaze me how adept they are at both. Hail, Caesar! is definitely one of the playful ones.

If comparisons must be made, I suppose Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou? and the woefully underappreciated Hudsucker Proxy would immediately come-to-mind. Set in 1950's Hollywood, studio bigwig Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) oversees the actors in his stable, mostly making sure their questionable exploits don't hit the tabloids. Then the studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of their latest biblical epic (Hail, Caesar) by a group of disgruntled communist screenwriters and held for ransom. While trying to keep the production on schedule and the incident from leaking to the press, he also has to deal with an unwed pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson) and a disgruntled art-film director (Ralph Fiennes), angry from being forced to work with an imbecilic singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich). Meanwhile, Mannix is mulling over an enticing job offer from airplane manufacturer Lockheed, an escape from the constant madness of his profession.

After all these years, George Clooney finally sits down to watch Batman and Robin.
That's the story in a nutshell, but if you're at-all familiar with the Coen Brothers in 'playful' mode, you know the plot itself takes a backseat to eccentric characters and the various vignettes in which they appear. Hail, Caesar! sports such a huge cast that most of them are relegated to just a few scenes, yet none are gratuitous cameos where we say, "Hey look! It's Jonah Hill!" No matter how brief their screen time, everyone disappears into their roles. I was especially amused by Channing Tatum's performance in what begins as a high-falutin' 50's era musical number, only to lapse into hilarious homoeroticism (the best scene in the entire film).

Channing doesn't appreciate this extra's brand of method acting.
Most importantly, Hail, Caesar! is very funny, though it helps if you have an appreciation for the Coens' brand of playfulness. The laughs come more from the overall tone, situations & characters (Clooney's facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission) than clever one-liners and punchlines. While it may not go down as one of their stone cold classics, Hail, Caesar! is sharply-written, unpredictable and full of laugh-out-loud moments. It's the Coen Brothers' most consistently amusing film since O Brother, Where Art Thou?.


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