Friday, July 1, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers' recent HAIL, CAESAR! begins and ends with movie studio manager/"fixer" Ed Mannix (Josh Brolin) in a church confessional, a place he evidently frequents. His worst offense seems to be the occasional cigarette.  His priest sighs, believes maybe this sinner comes by a bit too often.  But Mannix, a thoroughly decent family man, seems to have the weight of the world (or at least Hollywood - same thing, naturally) baring down on him.  His charge on the other side of the booth is perhaps the only person (captive that he is) who'll pay attention.  Or maybe it's just easier to talk to him than God.

On Mannix's docket are wayward actors like Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johannsson) whose exploits need to be kept out of the press, namely away from those busybody twin sister rival gossip columnists (both portrayed by Tilda Swinton). There are temperamental, exacting directors like Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) who need ego stroking, especially when the studio demands that their singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) have a part in his latest Serious Drama.  Mannix also is facing a decision as to whether he should quit the biz and take a cushy executive spot at Lockheed, a place its headhunter describes as where important things happen, not merely silly make believe fantasies like at Capitol Pictures.  A place with a future.  The headhunter (Ian Blackman) argues that with television increasing in popularity (the year is 1951), movie going will soon be less of a thing. 

Speaking of the future, a group of rather disgruntled and argumentative Communist screenwriters who use that very name to describe themselves kidnap Whitlock, who's about to film the crucial final scene for the studio's big Biblical epic, Hail, Caesar.  The chaotic timing of this creates a more eventful day for Mannix than perhaps is customary, though maybe not.  And is Whitlock, gasp, coming around to the writers' ideas, that the studios are just capitalist factories? Ones that, in fact, do take care of their employees. Aye, what a conundrum!

HAIL, CAESAR is quite a mishmash of ideas.  Essentially a valentine/raspberry to the old Hollywood studio system, but also a larger examination of Purpose, more existential and theological bents.  Mannix struggles with doing something that has meaning, even if it flies in the face of what is logical and more beneficial to his and his family's well being.  The Red Scare/Cold War angle of the plot is obviously at jab at Sen. McCarthy paranoia of the time, and as a sidebar, in something that could only be true - Newt Gingrich was recently quoted as saying that the United States should reinstate the House of Un-American Activities Committee!

But the ideas in this movie don't always come together, with the result feeling a bit disorganized and unfinished.  The pace does suffer for it.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of golden Coens touches, big and small, to keep the film humming.  My personal favorite was the round table of varying religious leaders who are asked to comment on the authenticity of Hail Caesar's biblical content.  There are many similarities to the Coens' BARTON FINK, but HAIL CAESAR is far lighter in tone.  Trouble was, the trailers made this movie look like two hours of rollicking comedy ala the dancing sailor sequence with Channing Tatum and George Clooney's pratfalls.  That's only part of the story......

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