Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Hail, Caeser! (***)

Produced, Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen


The Coen Brothers are the San Antonio Spurs of contemporary Hollywood. They do their work intelligently and efficiently. They get great work out of talent you wouldn't expect. Very quietly, they have a resume that rivals (and in most cases, surpasses) Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, and Steven Spielberg, but they're often treated as niche or regional, an artsy side note on the long list of Great American Filmmakers. If a director like, say, Stephen Frears released a film like Hail, Caeser! it would be a lynchpin on his resume - and Frears is an excellent filmmaker. For the Coens, it's a frivolous little thing, so little thought put into its release that they made it compete with Super Bowl weekend. Hail, Caeser! is a Hollywood satire just the way the Coens like it: an equal measure of reverence and cynicism, a small dollop of pride in an industry they know is run on such putrid human character. Using one of their favorite script devices, the brothers develop a central character - in this case, a Hollywood "fixer" named Eddie Mannix (played with swift charm and perfect timing by Josh Brolin) - whose chaotic world spins around him like a maniacal carousel, problems begetting more problems, undue pressure mounting atop his shoulders. Eddie Mannix isn't quite the Job-lite of A Serious Man or the pitiful ne'er-do-well of Inside Llewyn Davis; Hail, Caeser! doesn't quite have the bite of those two films. For the first time in a good while, it seems like the Coens actually like their protagonist, and it seems like their on a mission to make sure that all of his hard work will pay off.

Mannix is the head of production at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio from the Coens' brilliant 1991 film Barton Fink), a major studio in the early 50's. Capitol is flying high and in the process of shooting what it hopes will be its most tantamount success, a film called "Hail, Caeser!", a biblical epic starring Capitol's most talented and bankable star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, in full imbecile mode). When Baird goes missing from the set of "Caeser!" in the middle of the day, gossip rumblings begin trickling throughout the backlot, and Eddie does his best to keep them tempered. Meanwhile, one of Capitol's more prestige directors, Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is shooting a new drama and is in desperate need of a new lead actor. Eddie is forced to cast Hobie Doyle (an excellently cheeky Alden Ehrenreich) in the part, despite Hobie being cast almost exclusively in dopey cowboy roles up until that point. The studio is hoping to reconfigure Hobie's yokel-y image, putting the temperamental Laurence in a position of working with an inexperienced actor he did not choose. On another set, superstar actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant without a husband, and Eddie must figure out a way to either marry her to another star (she's already been divorced twice) or find another way to make sense of DeeAnna's soon-to-be single motherhood. At the end of his rope, Eddie sprints from one end of the studio to the other, hoping to stay a step ahead of one gossip columnist, Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), who plans to expose a dirty secret from Baird Whitlock's past, as well as Thora's twin sister Thessaly (also Swinton) who threatens to expose the truth of Whitlock's present MIA status.

All the while, Eddie is getting job offers from the Lockheed Corporation, promising an executive position with stability and reasonable hours. His job at Capitol wrecks havoc on his home life, he misses copious amounts of time with his wife (Alison Pill) and children, struggling with a cigarette habit and visiting the church confessional nearly every twenty-four hours to relieve his soul. As all this unfolds, Baird awakens in a swank beachside home - he is not missing, he's been kidnapped. He finds himself surrounded by a large collection of white Jewish men espousing the virtues of Communism and explaining just why they have hoarded him here, demanding $100,000 from Eddie Mannix and Capitol Pictures. As Mannix balances Whitlock's ransom scenario, DeeAnna's unwanted pregnancy, and Laurentz's frustration with Hobie's complete lack of acting talent, he is also diligent enough to look at dailies, keeping an eye on the films shooting all over the lot. There are also appearances from C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), a cigarette-puffing film editor; Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), a surety agent who may play an interesting part in DeeAnna's baby situation; and fellow movie star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a multi-talented song-and-dance man with more surprises than meets the eye. Hail, Caeser! is more ensemble than character study, and it takes no pains to stray away from Eddie Mannix and his troubles while keeping a keen (and often hilarious) eye on Baird and Hobie. As the day winds into night, Eddie Mannix earns his paycheck, swiftly and thoroughly dealing with every issue the Los Angeles night tries to throw his way.

When the Coens go screwball, it's often overlooked compared to their intense dramas. When they go exclusively comedy, their films become more derivative, too dependent on views of Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch for all the jokes to be funny. While Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy might not have the heft of a Fargo or a No Country For Old Men, it's hard for me not to appreciate just how much fun they're having deconstructing Golden Age Hollywood. After all, The Big Lebowski is basically their dissertation on the constructs of film noir. Hail, Caeser! is also their fourth film with George Clooney, a most unique collaboration since the Coens seem to be the only directors that Clooney is willing to fully forego his ego for. Like Cruelty and Burn After Reading, Clooney is playing a complete imbecile in Hail, Caeser!, a Hollywood actor so suggestible that he goes from bloated movie star to converted communist in less than twenty-four hours. The way both Clooney and especially Ehrenreich play their versions of movie star stupidity gets the film's biggest laughs. Hail, Caeser! isn't totally complete as a satire, it's sword draws very little blood. It's nothing like the scalding damnation that they brought to Barton Fink, which was our first true taste of their brilliance. Caeser comes on too easy, doesn't have any time to turn the screw because it has too many plot points to go over, and its third act turns over like a bubbling pancake. But its ensemble is great, with Brolin leading the way, another example of the actor's wonderful range and talent. It's a film to make Capitol Pictures proud.

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