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Entries in Hail Caesar! [2016] (1)

Thursday
Feb112016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Oh, Brother...

I've heard Joel and Ethan Coens' Hail, Caesar! described as a love letter to the movies. Here's the thing about love letters: it doesn't matter if they’re written on expensive stationery, drafted with a fancy pen, or infused with all the passion in the world—illegibility will leave the recipient feeling awkward instead of awestruck, disappointed instead of dazzled. The Coen Brothers' latest is a celebrity-packed, visually inspired period piece that doesn’t know what to do with all its big feelings about Old Hollywood.

Set in 1951, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a movie-studio "fixer" entrusted with keeping stars and starlets on the marquees and out of the tabloids. From covering up an unplanned pregnancy; to digging up a last-minute leading man for a picture-in-progress; to discreetly solving a kidnapping case involving the studio’s biggest draw, this brief glimpse into Mannix’s world underscores his attraction to an “easier” job at Lockheed, overseeing development of its recently tested Hydrogen Bomb.

The Coens' recent dramedies A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis are weird, compelling period pieces built around stuck, grumpy, first-world protagonists--men whose insecurities and desire for significance don't gel with their respective eras. Their plights echo through the decades in ways that both sting and inspire. This film's semi-dimensional characters and flimsy narrative execution is, to borrow a phrase from another Coen Brothers film, dumber than a bag of hammers.

A similar problem reduced the promising satire of Burn After Reading to a Stars Acting Silly vanity project, the Coens by way of Ocean's Twelve. In Hail, Caesar!, Brolin's perpetually furrowed brow and steely eyed cantankerousness sell the fatigue of a vaguely principled man who does bad things to keep horrible people rich. I imagine his Capitol Pictures existing in the same precinct as Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. Indeed, one of Mannix's first scenes finds him busting up some late-night domestic shenanigans in similar fashion to Russell Crowe's compromised detective in that film.

The trouble is, Eddie Mannix is essentially Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: a human being plagued by real-world problems, trapped in a bubble with animated idiots. Between Scarlett Johansson's chain-smoking Betty Boop-type, George Clooney's handsome Hollywood airhead, and Tilda Swinton's amounts-to-nothing roles as twin gossip columnists, Hail, Caesar! goes sitcom-broad in pandering to modern audiences' perceptions of what old movies were like. We also get a predictably pat "Who's on First" routine between Mannix and a makeshift council of religious leaders, and a tiresome "Rule of Three" scene in which the Clooney character keeps almost sipping from a chalice of poisoned wine.

This early scene best illustrates the film's problematic Big Bang Theory approach. If you've seen television or other movies, you know precisely how it will play out--as well as the scene that follows, and probably the scene after that. There's nothing funny in the writing or execution. The "comedy" relies on A) our forgetting that we've watched this bit a million times, and B) recognizing actor Wayne Knight, who plays the saboteur. "Hey! It's Newman from Seinfeld! 'Hellloooooo, Newman! Ha! Still cracks me up!"

Instead of turning convention on its head, the Coens coast on good will. Llewyn Davis would have bailed on this movie, and punched the ticket-taker on his way out.

Contrast this with a handful of really smart, superbly acted scenes, and you'll understand my frustration. Alden Ehrenreich plays a cowboy-movie star recruited by Mannix to take the lead in a high-society drama for a high-class British director, played by Ralph Fiennes. The scenes between these performers are electric and hilarious, and work on several different levels. Their main gag together is middle-brow, but the actors convince us that they're playing other people riffing on the art of creating other people. I could have watched a whole movie devoted to Mannix trying to make something of the Ehrenreich/Fiennes debacle, and even the Ehrenreich character's budding romance with a lovely young actress (Veronica Osorio)--who he charms with what I can only hope is a real display of dazzling lasso-work.

But, no. The Coens insist on their lame kidnapping story as the film's through-line. Even that, according to the trailers, carried the promise of a bizarre, game-changing story. Mannix receives a mysterious ransom letter that claims to have been written by "The Future". Turns out "The Future" is just a group of pissed-off screenwriters who want to seed Tinseltown with Communist propaganda. It's a solid Plan B, I guess, but that story goes nowhere, too.

Hail, Caesar! is an episodic mess, a ninety-minute "This Season On..." tease for an HBO comedy that probably wouldn't convince me to buy cable. If there were a theatrical version of YouTube, I would definitely recommend checking out the production numbers and spectacular set pieces peppered in among the filler. The homages to 1940s and 50s filmmaking are fantastic, especially the two fun-writ-large scenes involving Channing Tatum, and Frances McDormand's brief moment of horror-comedy. But Hail, Caesar! is mostly a sad reminder that even great auteurs like The Coen Brothers aren't above the need of a fixer from time to time, a streamlining Cyrano who can make their emotions make sense.