The new Coen brothers movie is an homage — or maybe just a bunch of references — to a golden age of movies that captures the energy of an era without having much of a point
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Directed and written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Running time: 105 minutes
By Jay Stone
The new Coen brothers movie, Hail, Caesar!, is just about the most fun you can have without thinking: a parody, or homage, or a burlesque, or maybe just a bunch of smart-ass references to the golden age of Hollywood. It sends up several movie genres — the dopey biblical epic; the over-choreographed Esther Williams film that takes place in a big swimming pool; that song-and-dance film in which a bunch of sailors would sing and dance their way through shore leave; a singing cowboy film filled with cornball slapstick — without actually making a point about any of them, except how silly it is, or funny, or nostalgic, or just wonderful, that they actually ever existed.
It’s an inside-movie comedy that doesn’t go inside movies as much as it goes inside our perceptions of them, a Coen trademark and part of what makes their films so knowingly quirky. So, for instance, a film-within-the film, a biblical epic called Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of The Christ, stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a magnificently vacuous leading man whose credentials are an authentic Roman haircut and a breathtaking lack of intelligence. For no apparent reason, Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of Hollywood writers who are communists. They subject him to a discussion group about the tenets of Soviet thought and cheerfully admit to having put Marxist subtext into their movies.
This reference to the Hollywood blacklist — more seriously addressed in Trumbo — never actually goes anywhere. It’s not very funny (the big comic moment comes in a character who, like Donny in The Big Lebowski, is constantly told to shut up) and it lacks any reference to the tragedy of the witch-hunt. It’s just an allusion to a famous Hollywood situation, part of the texture of the era.
Indeed, Hail, Caesar! is mostly about texture, and the fact that it works at all is a tribute to our love of the movies and our familiarity with their history, much in the way that, for instance, the Coens’ 2013 movie Inside Llewyn Davis cashed in our cultural memory of the New York City folk singing era.
The plot is a pastiche: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is an oddly ethical executive with Capital Pictures who is beset by a series of disasters that he must repair: disappearing (or kidnapped) movie stars, leading ladies who have gotten themselves pregnant without benefit of a husband, a starlet who drunkenly agrees to be photographed in naughty poses (“a possible French postcard situation,” the police say before Eddie pays them off.) Eddie is apparently based on a real Eddie Mannix who once covered up scandals for MGM, although a lot more aggressively. Brolin’s character is so straight that he goes to confession to tell the priest that he has lied to his wife about trying to quit smoking.
Among Eddie’s problems are DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the Esther Williams character, whom we meet in a water ballet that perfectly captures the gloriously shallow precision of the genre. He also has to stickhandle Hobie Doyle (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, a Johnny Depp lookalike), a singing cowboy with a western accent who has been assigned to star in a drawing room comedy. Hobie can ride a horse and twirl a lariat, but his attempts to deliver the line, “Would that it were so simple” — even when coached by his prissy director (Ralph Fiennes) — evokes the similarly hilarious attempts of Jean Hagen to adapt her New Jersey accent to a French Revolution love story in the classic Singing in the Rain. Ehrenreich is a scene-stealing star on the rise.
The highlight, however, is the performance of Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, the singing sailor, who tap-dances across tabletops and sings a navy lament called No Dames in an eye-opening homage (or parody, or burlesque) to the movies of Gene Kelly. It’s the Coens saluting a history they appear to view with an affectionate, deeply felt irony: two kibitzers in love with kitsch.
As the film’s plot staggers toward some vague purpose, we’re distracted by a brilliantly chosen group of performers — Tilda Swinton as feuding twin gossip columnists, Frances McDormand as a film editor who almost chokes to death on her own Moviola, Jonah Hill as a Jack-of-all-frauds — who move through a Crayola palette of intense, almost surreal colours (the cinematography is by Coen regular Roger Deakins and the music by their frequent collaborator Carter Burwell.)
The result is at once vastly entertaining (who doesn’t love a story about the movies?) and a missed opportunity (what is this story saying?) But hail to the Coens, just for thinking of it.
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