Mark Reviews Movies

Hail, Caesar!


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and smoking)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 2/5/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 4, 2016

Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! is a rose-tinted ode to Hollywood of yore. It's a time when one could wander a studio lot, open the door to any given soundstage, and discover some sort of wonder: a cowboy as adept with a six-string as he is with six-shooter, a giant pool where mermaids perform a water ballet to the music of a live orchestra, a tavern where sailors about to ship out sing in lament of the absence of dames at sea and dance with each other (since—wink—they're going to have to get used to that situation—wink again), or a lavish bacchanal hosted by a Roman centurion who's on the verge of accepting a new kind of faith.

The question posed by the film is whether or not any of this matters. There are, after all, other things of far greater significance happening in the world. The Cold War is under way. Men have devised and tested a most impressive way of annihilating each other, detonating the bomb in secret on an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Communists are surely infiltrating the power structures of the United States in order to spread their propaganda to the masses without anyone knowing it.

Hollywood doesn't seem to be the right industry to be fighting on the side of "good," either. The directors are either womanizers or entering into secret affairs with their male leads. The starlets are posing for "French postcards" or becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The screenwriters are communists, meeting in a seaside cottage in Malibu to babble about "the means of production" and the scourges of capitalism.

Studio executives stage photo opportunities of an actor and an actress becoming "fast friends" to keep the gossip columnists from digging into what's really happening behind the scenes. An actor's identity can change on a dime: One day, the cowboy is jumping on horses and swinging from trees, and the next, he's in a tuxedo trying to speak with an aristocratic air. The head of the studio goes to confession every morning before/after his work day (There's really no beginning and no end to it), and he bypasses the fact that he's bribing cops and slapping an actress. Instead, he seeks atonement for sneaking a few cigarettes while he's trying to quit smoking at the request of his wife, whom he rarely sees.

Do the movies matter in such a world and in light of such hypocrisy? If we can take anything from the film, it's that the Coens believe they do, and that they believe it to be so for no greater or lesser reason than that the movies have to matter.

It's fallacious reasoning, of course—begging the question, to be specific. Does that matter? No, it doesn't, because the fraternal writers/directors seem to be begging the question in another way. They want this film to serve as an example of why the movies matter.

There are moments here when it does, either through the way the Coens have so lovingly replicated the styles of the period-contemporary movies (Cinematographer Roger Deakins' work deserves a lot of credit, obviously) or the way they embrace the absurdities of this business we call show. There's one shot, though, that stands out among the rest for its relative but profound simplicity. It features only the face of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of Capitol Pictures, who spends the film debating whether he should stick with the picture business or take a cushy managerial job for an aircraft company. He wants to see the dailies for the studio's newest drama, and as he looks through the eyepiece to watch the reel of dancing legs unfurl, the camera observes Eddie's usually stern face for a brief instant—the tiniest of childish grins showing for the first time, illuminated in the flickering glow.

That's it, but it says everything. There are scenes here—most of them the ones that offer fake examples of well-established genres—that have that sublime feeling of being transported to another realm. It seems that the plot, which involves movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) being kidnapped by a group of communists while shooting a swords-and-sandals epic, is almost secondary to the Coens' intentions. Instead, they would rather linger on those lengthy recreations, featuring Scarlett Johansson as the actress at the center point of the water ballet, Channing Tatum as the star hoofer who leads that group of sailors in song and dance, and a pitch-perfect Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the cowboy actor who performs seemingly impossible stunts and now finds himself struggling as the lead in a drama directed by the esteemed Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes).

It's a lot of fun, too, especially when the Coens drop the veil of cinematic propriety in the behind-the-scenes workings of the studio system. Laurence coaches Hobie on the way he should say his single line in his introductory scene, in an exchange that seems as if it will never end. Johansson's DeeAnna Moran has found herself in the family way, and Eddie comes up with a plan that will allow her to adopt her own baby. Then there's a lengthy conversation about religion in movies that has the classic setup of a familiar joke: A priest, a rabbi, a Protestant minister, and an Eastern Orthodox patriarch sit in a conference room at a movie studio to discuss the theology of a movie featuring Jesus, and the patriarch says that the chariot scene seems "fakey."

Hail, Caesar! is an episodic romp, filled with unabashed adoration for the feats, follies, and foibles of Hollywood. What the film actually is and what it has to say about those things are inseparable.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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