Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Hail, Caesar!

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Some might mistake the Coen Brothers' latest, "Hail, Caesar!," for a minor or lightweight effort from cinema's most beloved pair of siblings and that would be a mistake. Considering how dark and melancholic some of the brothers' recent efforts - such as the brilliant "A Serious Man" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" - have been, it is safe to say that "Caesar" is their breeziest picture in a while as well as an out-and-out comedy.

Set at some point in the early to mid 1950s, the movie follows a day in the life of one harried Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who takes his name from a rather nefarious figure in actual Hollywood history, although any similarities between the two end there. In the film, Mannix runs Capitol Pictures - an appropriate name, you'll find out - and spends his day keeping stars out of trouble and out of the newspapers, ensuring that production schedules are being met and, unbeknownst to those with whom he works, taking interviews with defense contractor Lockheed.

The film opens with Mannix in a confessional booth, which is a daily ritual, asking for forgiveness for his relatively minor transgressions, such as concealing his smoking habit from his wife. During the course of his day, he'll be harangued by two gossip columnist sisters (both played by a game Tilda Swinton) and forced to find a solution for keeping the story of a pregnant star (Scarlett Johansson) who's unaware of the father's identity out of the papers.

Mannix will also have to ensure that the multiple films being shot on the studio's lot - which include two musicals, a western and a stiff-upper-lip British production - are on schedule as well as attempt to allay the concerns of one of his directors (Ralph Fiennes) that the earnest and deeply twanged singing cowboy star (a scene stealing Alden Ehrenreich) who has been thrust into a role for which he is not a good fit will be able to do the job.

To make matters worse, one of the studio's biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, completing his trilogy of buffoons for the Coens), has been kidnapped by a group of Communists known as The Future.

In between sequences of Mannix juggling all these various tasks, the picture spends some time on the sets of its films in production and provides great two musical numbers - one that includes Johansson as a mermaid and features women swimming through routines seemingly coordinated by Busby Berkeley and another in which Channing Tatum impresses as a song and dance man performing a hilariously homoerotic number called "No Dames" in a film reminiscent of "On the Town."

The scene that is, perhaps, the film's funniest, takes place on the set of "Merrily We Dance," a melodrama directed by Fiennes' Laurence Laurentz and featuring Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a good natured, but slightly out of his depth star of low budget oaters. Their back and forth during which Laurentz repeatedly attempts and fails to get Doyle to master the line "would that t'were so simple" could end up being the best running gag you'll see all year.

The production from which Clooney is nabbed is a big budget film in the style of "Ben-Hur" known as "Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ," in which Clooney's centurion has a life altering run-in with Jesus. Much like the other films produced at Capitol, the production is well-intentioned schlock. An early discussion between Mannix and a priest, rabbi, representative from the Greek Orthodox church and member of the Catholic Legion of Decency is not only hilarious, but the scene - coupled with the trips to the confession booth that bookend the picture - also nicely sets up the film's ideas concerning faith.

The concept of faith in the picture is not solely a religious one, although the idea is best driven home by Mannix's late night confessions, sense of guilt (which includes everything from his smoking habit to occasionally smacking his stars around) and his weighing the option of taking the Lockheed gig, which he poses to the priest as a matter of right and wrong. It's telling that when Mannix steals away for lunches with the Lockheed representative, the guy always tempts him with cigarettes.

There's also the storyline involving Whitlock's disappearance and the faith his Communist kidnappers put not only in their ideology, but also their fearless leader, who is revealed late in the film. The fact that "faith" is the one word Whitlock forgets late in the picture when giving a rousing speech on the last day of filming his biblical epic acts as a great punchline to the entire film's setup.

Although the Red Scare and fears of nuclear war were certainly no laughing matter during the 1950s, the Coens play the material mostly for laughs and, occasionally, borderline surrealism, especially during a sequence involving a submarine appearing off the coast of California.

During one of the scenes with The Future, one of Whitlock's captors tells him that the movie studio for which he works is part of a system of oppression. And while Mannix may or may not subscribe to this concept (he doesn't appear to when Whitlock attempts to sell him on it), he can at least rest assured that producing schlock - that occasionally is art - for the masses is God's work, especially when compared to the prospect of working for the military industrial complex.

"Hail, Caesar!" is another of the Coens' hilariously astute and unique spins on 20th century America. It's also the first must-see movie of 2016.

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