Saturday, February 06, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

If your favorite Coen Brothers’ films are the early ones, the ones that got knocked for choosing dark screwball humor over characters that one could empathize with, then the new Hail, Caesar! might be for you. Hail, Caesar! is a vinegar-spiked valentine to the movie business, one made by directors whose last film (Inside Llewyn Davis) was critically lauded and publicly unappreciated. It’s telling that the Coens set their film in the 1950’s, a time when even the best directors worked at the studios’ pleasure and no one with the Coens’ point of view could ever have had a career. Look at us now, the Coens seem to say. Look at the things we can do. We first meet studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) in a confessional booth. Eddie is troubled by his dishonesty about his smoking, but his worries about tobacco mask a deeper concern. As much as Eddie loves the movie business, a job offer from Lockheed could bring plenty of money and a more stable home life. Part of the story of Hail, Caesar! is the story of how Eddie makes his decision.

Christian imagery reoccurs through Hail, Caesar!. Eddie, a devout man, goes to confession and later prays over his future while holding a rosary. Eddie works for Capitol Pictures, a studio that’s producing a sword-and-sandals picture called “Hail, Caesar!” in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, always good as a dumb guy) plays a Roman who gradually comes to Christian beliefs. Representatives of various faiths appear in Eddie’s office; Eddie wants to be sure no one will be offended by the way his studio depicts Jesus. When the men bicker about the extent of Jesus’s divinity the scene is funny, but the Coens’ trump it by lacing Hail, Caesar! with narration (by Michael Gambon) that the film’s last shot suggests just might be the voice of The Man Upstairs. Spoiler alert: God loves the movies. Eddie’s spiritual struggle is pretty uninvolving, especially since there is so much comic energy at the fringes of the film. Baird is kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of frustrated screenwriters, and it’s not giving too much away to say Clooney gets funnier the more that Baird becomes receptive to their political ideas. Scarlett Johansson plays a bathing beauty whose smile masks a deeper pragmatism, and Channing Tatum gets a fully staged musical number. Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip columnists, and best of all is Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy thrust into a high society picture. The scene between Ehrenreich and a horrified director (Ralph Fiennes) is the film’s comic high point. (I also wanted more of Frances McDormand as a klutzy editor.) All these good actors and funny scenes feel stranded though, because the Coens’ overarching lack of humor about the movies and maybe about themselves as artists too leaves Hail, Caesar! tasting a little sour.

In Preston Sturges’s 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, a film director rediscovers his purpose while watching a group of convicts enjoy a cartoon. Hail, Caesar! arrives at a similar place but works much harder to get there. Eddie and the stars of Capitol Pictures look forward to the future of the movies, but Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens looking back in anger.

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