Friday, February 5, 2016

Movie Review: "Hail, Caesar!" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

My first 2016 movie and a product of the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. As a rule, I'm not a fan of the pair's films just because they happen to have their name in the credits, so I tend to walk into every one of their movies with the proverbial opinion slate wiped clean. And with their newest release, Hail, Caesar!, what I walked into didn't feel much like a Coen Brothers movie at all, despite their commonly-used actor legion littering the screen. In what I believe may be their first true comedy—one that lacks a "drama" or "thriller" or "political" byline—the director team explores the trials and tribulations of an early Hollywood studio. With Old Hollywood in-jokes dripping from every painted backdrop and plenty of genre-twisting performances, it's enough to overlook the plot problems when a film this fun makes me want to watch all my old classic movie favorites.

The time period setting is purposefully mucky, what with 40 years of cinema style influencing the story, but for our leading man, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), we're firmly stuck in an ongoing film noir. Mannix is Head of Production at the booming Capital Pictures Studio, and it's his job to wrangle talent, side-step scandals, and keep the production wheels turning for every film being shot under the Capital header. From changing western star, Hobie Doyle's (Alden Ehrenreich), image by shoving him into a romantic drama, to keeping news of film swimmer sensation, DeeAnna Moran's (Scarlett Johansson), single mother status out of the papers by attempted to marry her off, Mannix has his hands full. So when the scenery-chewing womanizer, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the studio's biggest picture of the year, Hail, Caesar!, is kidnapped from the set, it's up to Mannix to—quietly—get him back. Even if that means turning over a bundle of cash to a bunch of hoity-toity Communists looking for their fair share.

Hail, Caesar! tries to be a couple different movies all at once. Rather, it struggles to keep its "A" plot the "A" plot. If you come into the movie expecting the story to be about a kidnapped actor and all of the whys and hows and whos surrounding that... you'll be sorely disappointed. Not to say that doesn't happen, but it's easily the worst and least important aspect of the plot, devoid of nearly all humor save a few dog-toothed grins from Clooney. Needless to say, that whole bit was how the film was advertised, so I'm expecting quite a few disappointed movie-goers railing against this one. In actuality, the movie is all about Brolin's Mannix. A character like that is rarely explored, someone juggling the insanity of the studio business and shouldering the good and bad all at once? All jokes aside, that's a pretty interesting subject, with more than enough material to build out a dynamic and entertaining Coen Bros. project.

If this film was anything, at best, it was a genre parody of the Golden Age of Cinema. From the 20's era Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming number to the 30's era Ernst Lubitsch society drama... all the way to the 40's film noir/Double Indemnity-esque Brolin narration, the 50's era spaghetti westerns and Gene Kelly dance hall musicals, and the 60's era Ben-Hur epic—every single representation was on point. To say that the Coen Brothers accurately captured the beauty and ridiculousness of every avenue of American cinema is an understatement. Even the casual throwback to the Road Movies (an off-hand comment from one of the communist kidnappers about their All the Way to Uruguay film) made a nerd like me feel like that joke was just for me. And it wasn't a hybridization of genres either (though Scarlett Johansson did appear to have a character torn between decades); it played into slices of memorable eras, giving each a distinct and honorable tip-of-the-hat.

Now, the plot itself is something different. At worst, the film is a hodge-podge of political swashbuckling and civil unrest that was all over the place, inserting elements that were confounding, tonally shallow, and frankly, useless. The attempt to incorporate any element of the subversive Communist agenda within the film industry is heavy-handed and ignorantly obvious. If you want to watch that movie, go see Trumbo. In Hail, Caesar!, it all feels like a last ditch effort to shoehorn meaning into the meaningless. To that end, the Coen's failed miserably. At one point, when the seas parted and the Communists took to the water (what was going on there?), the Coens did their very best Wes Anderson cinematic impression to date. Stylistically, this is where the film almost goes off the rails, because they just can't play that kind of humor without it falling flat.

But you know what? I don't care! That entire storyline was a drop in the ocean if you remember the actual plot of the film. Brolin as the man on the ground at Capital Pictures, putting out fires and dealing with the internal politics of the business? That was the movie. And had the Coen Brothers had a bit more faith in their narrative to keep the foundation of that story from cracking by going off in all directions, the other faults wouldn't have been detectable. Every actor, from Johansson to Channing Tatum to Ehrenreic, brought their Capital Pictures-best in their "on screen" scenes, and that can only come from understanding the material that you're mocking. A few actors got some funny scenes, but were largely under-played (Jonah Hill, Frances MacDormand, and Ralph Fiennes), and Tilda Swinton's twin version of Hedda Hopper was excusably dumb, but that's what happens when you have an ensemble this large and a plot this simple: you get a couple of duds. More often than not, though, there was a laugh around every corner, and an intelligent film joke at its core.

For the majority of audiences, I'm under no illusion that this film will go over their heads. Not to say that it's high brow... because that couldn't be further from the truth. But it is specific. Very specific. And it speaks to a niche group of viewers willing to overlook the plot problems in order to enjoy the frivolity and dramedy of the Studio Days of Hollywood. I wish there were more movies (and directors) who were knowledgeable enough to be as playful with these genres as the Coens were here.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

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