Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
As a movie-lover, it's always great to spend some time in Old Hollywood, and with the Coen Brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar! (opening today), we get immersed in it. Hail, Caesar! looks, feels and sounds like a Coen Brothers movie, which is very surprising to me because...I actually liked it. A lot.
If that sounds sacrilegious, it may very well be. As I am required to say every time I review a Coen Brothers movie, I have never quite connected with any of their films, much to the chagrin of my colleagues, family and friends. I was eight years old when I saw Raising Arizona, and despite my thoughts on it, I still went on to love movies. I absolutely despised O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film that still stands as one of my least favorite films of all time. When I thought the Coens were given way too much credit for True Grit, I was ridiculed (much of the "Coen-esque" dialogue that they were praised for, even earning an Oscar nomination for, was actually present in the 1969 film version, and the novel that preceded it). And by the time I gave a middling review to the critical darling, Inside Llewyn Davis, I was pretty darned certain that I had just been born without the Coen Brothers gene.
None of this makes me proud, none of it is meant as film snobbery. Like every movie - yes every movie - I enter with the hope and intention to love it. The Coens and me, in that sense, have been in quite the abusive relationship. To the rest of the world, they are heroes, but to me, a massive, constant disappointment. I was content to accept that maybe we just aren't a good fit. Ethan, Joel, it's not you. It's me.
But it's not so much that I'm a Coen Brothers-hater (although they are so revered at this point, to suggest that they are anything less that Gods gift to cinema is normally defined as heresy). I just have never quite been able to connect to anything they have ever done. They are gifted filmmakers, slick screenwriters and operating on the fringes of big Hollywood, it can't be argued that their films - good, bad or indifferent - are always distinctive.
Hail, Caesar! finally worked for me, in a big way, as a quirky comedy and also as a very sly satire of religion, politics and the movie industry. Until a Russian submarine shows up towards the end, it felt like their most constrained comedy ever, which perhaps is why it was more my taste. And it's beautifully shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers' go-to director of photography who has worked on all of their films since Barton Fink in 1991.
It features an all-star cast, also full of go-to actors that have inhabited several Coen Brothers films. Josh Brolin plays real-life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, who is sort of the warden at the insane asylum known as Capitol Pictures. When famous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is abducted by a group of Communist screenwriters, Mannix goes to work to get him back in the saddle before production costs on the studio's huge Ben-Hur-sized epic, "Hail, Caesar - The Tale of the Christ" balloon to equally epic proportions. There are a number of other actors, directors and players involved, representing various cross-sections of popular cinema at the time. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an Esther Williams-type actress who has gotten pregnant and might not be able to fit into her required mermaid costume (or "fish ass" as she calls it). Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a Western star, roped by the studio into playing a dramatic film version of the musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," directed by (fictional) Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who opposes this "rodeo clown" being shoved into his masterpiece. Channing Tatum channels Fred Astaire the best he can, and has a hysterical musical number that more than suggests his character's sexuality. And then there is Tilda Swinton, playing the dual roles of nosy journalist twin-sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker.
All of this gives the Coen Brothers an opportunity to exalt and pay homage to movies of that era, and much of it works. In fact, there were several laugh-out-loud moments, and the film is at its best when it is finding humor in the old studio system, poking fun and creating mini films-within-a-film. When the cowboy Hobie Doyle utters the line, "It's complicated," that may have instantly qualified itself later in the year as one of my favorite lines of 2016 (see the film to understand just why this line is humorous).
But surprisingly (to me, maybe not to you), were the somewhat profound statements The Coens were making in this seemingly light- hearted romp. There is a very funny scene where Mannix brings in a bunch of religious leaders - a priest, a rabbi, etc. - to make sure that their script does not offend any "reasonable person" who may watch the film. During this scene, the rabbi mentions that according to his religion, God is never to be shown in the movie, by rule. Interestingly, Mannix's boss, the studio head Mr. Krank - like God - never appears in Hail, Caesar!. Subtle? Not so much, but it speaks to the entertainment industry and to the grand scheme of things within the studio system. Plus, is there a such thing as trying to discuss religion rationally, in a way that doesn't provoke or offend anyone at all?
There are several other interesting observations, like with Clooney's buffoonish character being abducted and then willingly becoming a Communist...as an actor, his head simply fills with the will of those around him. Or the duality of Thora and Thessaly Thacker - one a gossipy tabloid columnist and the other a "respectable" member of the press - both interested in the same trashy stories, with no discernible difference other than what they tell you they are. Or the guilt that Mannix feels about trying to kick his cigarette habit, hoping that God doesn't judge him too harshly for this yet never questioning that any of the other shady dealings he is involved in might be worthy of confession.
Many characters like Mannix in this movie are stuck in their own misguided sense of self. A Communist writer abducts a movie star by drugging him, but to share the ransom with the kidnapped star? That would be unethical, he says. All things in life, the Coens seem to be saying, are just a matter of perspective. Take the title of the film itself: A movie (the one being made in this film) is being made to honor and explain Jesus Christ...and it is not just called "Hail Caesar" but "Hail, Caesar!" That "!" is important I think, because it implies a fiercely stubborn, moronic, confidence...of which many of us choose to root our most closely-held beliefs.
What stuck with me the most however, is what is said about film itself. The idea is presented on one side, that the main purpose of all art is to subliminally influence the masses to think and feel certain ways, versus the thought on the other side that says art is what inspires people and helps foster independent thought and expression. By going back to the old days of Hollywood - the 50s (the
decade in which the Coens were born) - in many ways Hail, Caesar! acts as an origin story...an unearthed blueprint of what our current entertainment industry was founded upon. Like many arguments in life, is there truth to be found on both sides of the coin? Have we been brainwashed over the years by the movie industry in subtle ways? That would explain to me the fervorous devotion that many feel towards the Coens. But have they themselves, through Hail, Caesar!, forced me to unplug from the Matrix and re-evaluate my own influences?
Trust me, there is some heady stuff going on underneath the seemingly fluffy surface of Hail, Caesar! and I find myself wanting to call it their best film ever. Coming from me, that isn't saying that much. My relationship with the Coens has just taken an unexpected turn, a promising step. I'm not quite ready to put a label on it, but I have started to feel the tingles in my stomach. Alas, I have finally felt a connection to the work of The Coen Brothers.
As this film implies, there is a difference between "not so simple" and "it's complicated"...it's all a matter of perspective. But if Hail, Caesar! worked for me, there is a great chance it might for you as well.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple.)
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