Monday, February 15, 2016

'Hail, Caesar!' review

Not many directors have a record as spectacular or as diverse as Joel and Ethan Coen. The acclaimed filmmakers have been churning out a wide range of films since the mid 1980s, and almost always with astonishing results. In the weeks before the release of their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, there was an insane amount of thinkpieces and dissertations attempting to rank their films and create a definitive list of the best of the Coen Brothers. And every time, the list shaped up wholly unique- there was no consensus, because there's such a varied range of options to choose from. Their filmography includes screwball comedies like The Big Lebowski, O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading. But on top of that, there are quite a few violent dramas like No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing and Fargo. Oh, and by the way, they can also do really serious and thought-provoking character studies like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis.

The lesson with the Coens is to expect the unexpected. A new Coen Brothers film can go in any direction and shape any kind of tone that it wants- but it always feels distinctly like their own. Hail, Caesar! is very sharp, very funny and truly a Coen Brothers film. Working as a wicked satire of the film industry, a highly sour love letter to Hollywood and an exercise in creating brilliant characters, Hail, Caesar! is some of the most fun that I've had at a movie theater in a long time. I'm serious, guys. This movie is the real deal. I was doubled over with laughter for a good chunk of the runtime and I still chuckle to myself when I think about some of the sequences and jokes in this movie. Mixing the wacky comedic sensibilities of Lebowski with the structural excellence of Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! is a unique concoction that works on nearly every level.

Look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood. Remember the glitz, glamour and beautiful sheen of those classic films of the 1950s? Yeah, now imagine all of the terrible things that must have gone on under the surface. It's not very pretty, right? It certainly isn't. But it is oh-so-absolutely wild and terrifically funny.

This is what Hail, Caesar! delivers. Told from the perspective of Capitol Pictures' chief fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), this delicious skewering of Hollywood chronicles 27 hours of madcap insanity in the highly stressful Tinseltown studio life. There's no ordinary day in Mannix's world, but when we find him, it's a worse day than usual. The studio is in the middle of production on their biggest film of the year- Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ- and Mannix has to convince a group of incompetent religious leaders that the film is reverent and respectful to the Bible. Oh, and halfway through the day, the film's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), disappears completely from the set. All that Mannix has to go on is a small note from a mysterious group called "The Future" who claims to have Whitlock and will only release him for $100,000.

But the drama doesn't end there. Mannix is also attempting to manage the studio's slightly wild and acerbic mermaid musical star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson), who has just recently discovered that she's pregnant out of wedlock. Not to mention the trouble with Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the Western star who the studio is attempting to shift into more serious fare, much to the chagrin of acclaimed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). And as the icing on the cake, Mannix is forced to deal with the sleazy tabloid journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), who are both desperate to dig up dirt on the underbelly of the studio. But as all of this is going on, Mannix is forced to contemplate a different question- should he stay with the studio or move on to a more respectable position. The answer isn't necessarily clear. Would that it were so simple.

Hail, Caesar! may feature big name stars and flashy setpieces, but this is not a film for mainstream audiences. I'm not really saying anything revolutionary or unique here- after all, we're talking about a movie that received an absolutely dreadful "C-" Cinemascore from audiences on opening night. But I feel like I should emphasize that fact, because people are still going in with very little idea of what to expect and walking out mad. As I walked out from my preview screening, one audience member said "I told you, we should have seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead," while another lamented the "downturn" in George Clooney's career. I'm not saying that they're right, but it's worth emphasizing that the marketing is pitching a movie that simply isn't there.

What you will find if you make the wise move to see Hail, Caesar! is a gonzo comedy that cuts to the seedy heart of Hollywood with hilarity and smarts, accompanied by some spectacular scenes and a cast that is pure dynamite. No, there isn't much of a plot. It's a lot of threads loosely connected by the character of Eddie Mannix. In many ways, its looping, circular structure is similar to the Coens' masterful Inside Llewyn Davis, another film praised by critics and unfairly maligned by audiences. You won't find complicated story mechanics, but you will find a stinging and droll mockery of the film business that had me in stitches. It's pure, unadulterated popcorn entertainment written and directed in a way that only the Coens could control.

But even if Hail, Caesar! wasn't such a magnificent film, it would be worth seeing for the basic fact that this movie features a whole cast of stars working at the top of their game. Josh Brolin has been working with the Coens for years (No Country, True Grit) and is obviously comfortable with the directors and their vibe. His performance as Eddie Mannix is tremendous, working effectively as the only straight man in this crazy world. Brolin is nuanced and detailed, creating a character that the audience can really relate to and understand (despite some questionable actions). If Hail, Caesar! wasn't opening in the doldrums of February, Brolin would be in the mix for some awards recognition.

Brolin's Mannix is the connective tissue that carries the whole movie, but there are plenty of other actors that play their part, including one who may have broken out in a big way. George Clooney isn't as unhinged as the marketing promised- he delivers fully cohesive sentences and funny bits of dialogue. But he has some memorable scenes and the final speech is a wonderfully staged comedic moment. And it only gets better from there. Scarlett Johannson is appropriately caustic and salty as the popular movie star with a New Jersey dialect, carrying a few great scenes to their full potential. Channing Tatum is hilariously overdone as Burt and the "No Dames" musical number is an early favorite for scene of the year. Ralph Fiennes is stupendous as usual. Tilda Swinton steals scenes as the competing twin reporters. Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill have amazing cameos. Seriously, this movie has it all.

And I haven't even talked about Alden Ehrenreich yet. Going in, I knew that Ehrenreich had been in a few things before that I hadn't seen (Beautiful Creatures), but I didn't know much about him. If anything, I expected him to be one of the weak links of the film surrounded by all of these titans of acting. And yet, to my surprise, he damn near steals the entire movie. In a movie occupied by a bunch of unlikable fools and crazy people, Ehrenreich's Hobie Doyle emerges as the most likable and the least foolish out of the group. Doyle's Western specialty and Southern accented language make him seem like a difficult sideshow and yet, he'll constantly surprise you. His scene with Ralph Fiennes is an all-timer and if enough Hollywood execs see this, I have a feeling that we'll be seeing Ehrenreich everywhere in the coming years.

Despite how truly wonderful this whole cast is, it all goes back to Joel and Ethan Coen. They're masters of the elements of film, combining old-fashioned showmanship with a wittiness and incisive bite that is often imitated, but never quite as good. Carter Burwell's score and Roger Deakins' cinematography are both mesmerizing, with the production and costume design working as the icing on the cake. The movie-within-a-movie sequences are filmed with love and care, showing how much the Coens respect and understand the value and appeal of that entertainment from a lost age.

But then again, the brilliance of Hail, Caesar! is how closely it walks the line between parody and admiration. Long stretches of the film seem to deconstruct the pomp and circumstance of the era, showing just how phenomenally silly old Hollywood could be. But the final verdict is left up to you. I think that the audience can decide whether or not the Coens have the same spiritual respect for the art of moviemaking that Mannix does, or if, through the voiceover and the constant ridiculousness, they're simply making fun of his optimism. It makes for a fun experience and leaves you thinking even after the joyous time of watching the movie is over.

Hail, Caesar! is another masterwork of comedy and cinema from two of the greatest directors working in the medium today. Raucous and bubbly, always hysterical, and constantly upping the ante of the comedy, I loved every single minute of this film. Some have dismissed Hail, Caesar! as been a light and unimportant little film that doesn't match up to the Coens' previous work. I disagree. In the guise of a screwball laugh-fest, you'll find a reflection of the madness of Hollywood that is based largely on the history of the industry that we all know and love. Is it as weighty as some of their other fare that examines serious human problems? No, it probably isn't. But does that really matter? Not in the slightest. I walked away from the 27 hour journey of Hail, Caesar! refreshed, invigorated and excited. That's something that very few movies accomplish, and yet, Hail, Caesar! does it with a stylish ease. It's the first instant classic of 2016.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Business Insider, Guardian, Telegraph, Screen Rant, Joblo

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