Film Review: HAIL, CAESAR! (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

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by Jason Rohrer on February 4, 2016

in Film

SQUINTING AT THE GRANDEUR

The champion American auteurs of the last thirty years have made it difficult to accept anything from them but greatness. Of seventeen movies Joel and Ethan Coen have written and directed since 1984, at least ten resonate with extraordinary moral power. Three or four are as good as any movie ever made in this country. They are also, some of them, among the funniest of films. And if you can forget all that going in, then Hail, Caesar! might seem as good as it is, which is very.

greatest story

A day in the life of 1950’s Hollywood studio fixer Eddie Mannix (a fine Josh Brolin) includes bribing police, paying ransom to kidnappers, suppressing communist infiltration, and taking at least one trip to the confession booth. But these sordid elements are a pleasant, silly backdrop to the Coens’ real fascination here: period genre style. As Mannix stalks his film noir storyline on the Capitol Pictures lot, he drags us through soundstages bursting with golden age mythology, all photographed in 35 millimeter by the apparently invincible Roger Deakins.

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For a singing cowboy picture, Deakins reproduces the tendencies of VistaVision. Across an Esther Williams-esque musical number, he splashes a Technicolor as wet as Busby Berkeley’s. And Deakins helps the Coens tweak Stanley Donen in a very gay sailors-on-leave number starring Channing Tatum, who is as good a song-and-dance man as Hollywood has produced since Gene Kelly. Tatum is used here at least as well as Justin Timberlake was in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coens know what to do with a technician.

ehrenreich

Here, they include non-musical snippets, too, love letters to movie history that likely never was. There’s a legend that when John Wayne had to deliver the line “Truly, this is the son of God” for The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens asked him to put more awe into the dialogue; in the next take Wayne drawled, “Aw, truly this is the son of God.” This fable gets a vicious exploration here courtesy George Clooney, as the Coens stage overwrought moments from a sandals-and-crucifixion epic. And one black-and-white scene from a Philadelphia Story-ish melodrama gives Ralph Fiennes the palette to paint a vivid George Cukor impression in a director-and-bad-actor interplay with Alden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is excellent in a starmaking frame that’s not really an active or interesting role. It’s as if the Coens realized what they had and wrote him some extra scenes because they could. One wishes they made more sense, or more difference to the plot.

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Hail, Caesar! has so many riches that it can’t help but squander some. In the Coens’ signature one- or two-shot character roles, which frequently go to unknowns, this movie casts the likes of Clancy Brown and Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand. Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson get a couple of scenes each. They all fill out Mary Zophres’ thrilling costumes. Sure, the bits aren’t all up to the standards of the best Coen scripts; many scenes feel like placeholders, their promise unfulfilled. The God-and-Mammon storyline, mixing Das Kapital and the Gospel of St Matthew, could use more persuasive thematic coherence. But overall, this movie is about two enormously talented filmmakers indulging themselves, with in-jokes aplenty – even the movie studio here is the same one they made up for Barton Fink. What’s not to like?

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For one thing, there is the Coens’ status against the studio giants to whom they pay homage. In movies as different as Miller’s Crossing and No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have proved they are as good at action as Stevens or Howard Hawks. Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski feature screwball comedy chops equal to those of Cukor and Leo McCarey. The Coens’ breadth of competence across tone and mode rivals the most versatile assembly-line directors, but William Wyler and Michael Curtiz rarely had this much say about their material. And so it’s hard, watching Hail, Caesar!, not to think: “They’re better than this.” Of course, the Coens are ahead of me: none of the movies they show being made are anyone’s best work, either.

no dames

But there is an inevitable disappointment when they turn in an O Brother, Where Art Thou? or a Burn After Reading. These are not bad movies. But they’re not Llewyn Davis, or A Serious Man. That said, every movie doesn’t have to be a No Country or The Man Who Wasn’t There – these are heavy entertainments, even grim. But Blood Simple and True Grit, if no more than enjoyable genre entries, are at the very top of the genre game. And Hail, Caesar!, for all its elements, tops no category. The Coens’ other movie explicitly about the movies is better in almost every way: more original, more gripping, more consistently funny, more spiritually realized. Still, it’s fairly high praise that the worst thing I can say about Hail, Caesar! is that it’s not Barton Fink.

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photos courtesy Universal Pictures

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Hail, Caesar!
USA | 2016 | 106 minutes
in wide release February 5, 2016
for more info, visit Hail Caesar The Movie

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