Being Awards Circuit’s resident “historical expert” — unlike fellow writer, Mark Johnson, I didn’t live the history I’m watching — I fell in love with the Coen brothers latest film, Hail, Caesar from the moment the trailer showed Scarlett Johansson coming out of the water a la Esther Williams. Gearing up to be a hard sell this weekend – suffice it to say the trailers are making a lot of exaggerations with the plot – Hail, Caesar is a visually and narrative treat for anyone who’s ever hoped for Robert Taylor to sweep them off their feet, or wanted George Cukor to direct their life. If those names don’t ring bells for you, Hail, Caesar will bore you silly.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of physical production and Hollywood “fixer” for Capitol Pictures, tasked with making sure Hollywood’s biggest and brightest keep their dirty laundry out of the papers. When the studio’s biggest name, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped, Mannix must organize Whitlock’s ransom before the studio, and the world, gets wise.
There are numerous motifs and themes the Coen brothers enjoy inserting into their oeuvre, and I’m not talking about their love for Homer’s The Odyssey. Like their last feature, Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar follows a character torn between just existing – selling out to “the man” for financial security and familial togetherness – or living in a dream world despite seeing what’s truly beneath it. In this case, Mannix finds being offered a job with Lockheed, a company who sees the movies as a passing fad filled with “kooks” living a life of “make believe.”
For the Coens, this is their chance to indulge in make believe. Alongside being a breathtaking and joyous love letter to the Golden Era of studio filmmaking Hail, Caesar explores the various personas of our beloved celebrities. The world of film is one of make believe, myth-making, and amalgamations of ideals we wish were true, best exemplified in the various actors and films depicted.
With a plot as lean as a greyhound, the film diverges into stand-alone sequences from some of Capitol Pictures’ biggest stars and productions. We watch Baird Whitlock joke about Palestinians in his Roman epic, DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) get swallowed up by a whale and jump 150-feet into a pool of water, and enjoy the “lazy ‘ol moon” with cowboy crooner Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). And Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) tap dance to “No Dames” is fantastically homoerotic. These moments have little bearing on the plot short of introducing the A-list names on the poster, but give us the complete experience of living on a studio lot itself; it’s not about being in a studio in the 1950s specifically, but seeing behind the artifice of filmmaking that’s remained unchanged since Hollywood’s inception.
For the Coens, Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping, and unwitting sympathy for Communists, explores the grander topic of exposing, and accepting the artifice of filmmaking and appreciating it anyway, and much of the fun comes from the stars at their realest. Outside of Brolin and Ehrenreich, who is pretty much the second lead considering his significant amount of screentime in comparison to the others, we’re given glimpses of the other actors in the studio, many of who are composites of various stars in the Hollywood of yore.
This is where one needs classic film knowledge; many of the lines and references left my screening audience cold because it’s doubtful they know Loretta Young’s illegitimate child, or the behind-the-scenes issues making Quo, Vadis. The Coens end up being like Kevin Smith, in that they’re making movies for a particular audience and those outside the know are left out with little regard by them.
Tatum, Johansson, and Clooney are all one-note and perfectly fine with the characters they’re given. I adored watching Tatum tap, Johansson mug (although her Judy Holliday voice irked me), and Clooney give his Cary Grant grin; the Hollywood of today imitating the stars of yesteryear. Jonah Hill is practically a cameo as a Hollywood money man; his role could have been played by absolutely anyone.
The same lack of consideration is given to Frances McDormand – playing a Hollywood editor who proves Edna Mode’s “no capes” theory – and Allison Pill as Mannix’s wife (with a near twenty-year age difference between her and her on-screen husband), both of whom have one scene. Tilda Swinton is fun as twin gossip columnists differentiated by an accent and a million readers. And keep your eyes peeled for Jack Huston – in a cameo amounting to about 30 seconds of screentime – rocking a William Powell mustache and auditioning for The Thin Man.
Josh Brolin is perfectly suited to play the gruff-talking, if overly fearful of damnation, Eddie Mannix. Mannix led a colorful life – rumored to know where Hollywood’s bodies were buried – and though the film idealizes him significantly, Brolin’s a solid anchor. Had the film taken a stronger thread, maybe a day in the life look, Brolin might have gotten the chance to do some serious acting. The way it stands in the film, we know barely enough about him than everyone else; his problems are generic, and everything ends hastily and happily.
Stealing much of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a cowboy star who “barely knows how to…talk” offered the opportunity to reshape his image into a dashing leading man. Ehrenreich’s perpetually goofy grin and Southern twang make him instantly charming, and the film revels in showing his lazy brand of nonchalance for all things Hollywood. He’s briefly given a subplot, dating a Carmen Miranda-esque musical star, that deserved more screentime.
Filling the 106-minute runtime is easy; as the audience breathlessly moves from production to production one starts realizing that the main narrative has retreated into the shadows. The return to Whitlock and his kidnapping ends up hurting the movie more than anything, since it’s utterly silly and, again, borrows from history – in this case the Communist blacklist – without explaining or commenting on it specifically. Baird’s interactions with Communism are dense, filled with mentions of “capitalism,” “dialectic,” and the like. There’s little depth to why someone like Whitlock would have to be kidnapped to be converted, since he’s fairly dumb and seemingly goes along with things quickly, and by the time the real mastermind is revealed the whole thing is resolved. And because the cast of characters are reduced to a scene, the person proven to be the organizer has zero impact outside of being a celebrity we’ve met.
I do believe we have our first glimpses of contenders for production design and costuming. Jess Gonchor’s exquisite sets – filmed in breathtaking aerial shots, a la Busby Berkeley, courtesy of Roger Deakins – show the immense detail that goes into facades that’ll last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Ellen Chenoweth’s costume design, ranging from Mannix’s drab suits to “Merrily We Dance’s” gorgeous ballgowns, evoke the rich Hollywood glamour of old-school designs from the likes of Irene and Jean Louis.
From a straight-forward, narrative perspective, Hail, Caesar wanders like a drunk trying to pass a sobriety test. But it’s obvious the Coens are making this for those who revere and appreciate the same cinema they do, who can laugh (and understand) at joke about Danny Kaye and Judy Canova. The actors are game and there’s a loving adherence to capturing everything the way it was “back then.” I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and if you’ve ever been transported by a classic film, you’ll enjoy it too!
“Hail, Caesar” is distributed by Universal Pictures and opens in theaters on Friday, February 5, 2016.
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