HAIL, CAESAR! Reviewed

Universal Studios

The Coen Brothers are hit and miss for me, and it’s not just because they veer from bloody noir (Blood Simple) to screwball comedy (Raising Arizona) to deadpan absurdity (A Serious Man). This one’s somewhere between The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the Coen spectrum.
To quote George Schmidt, conductor of the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, a jazz band who I can’t believe hasn’t been on the soundtrack of a Coen Bros movie yet, “art fails where concept outstrips performance.” I love that line. It’s as economical as a telegram. (You know, like the old joke where a brother buys a prize longhorn at market can only afford a single word home, so he telegrams “Comfortable”…)

A few Coen Brothers movies had concepts that were close to outstripping performance. Burn After Reading, which was a treat for espionage fans, came close. It’s still entertaining, but it never comes together. Hail Caesar! makes a few questionable steps, but holds together as a fun and silly film set in an imaginary Hollywood that plants one foot in the dark and dirty Ellroy side where the talent have to have handlers to keep them from dying in drug-fueled sex orgies, but keeps the other in the magical whimsical world of movie myth. It also has some interesting cameos that make it seem a nod to the criminally underrated Southland Tales by Richard Kelly, but not quite as weird.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, based on the real Hollywood fixer. (Bob Hoskins played him in the more realistic Hollywoodland, another underrated flick). Here he seems like The Man who runs Capitol pictures, as he never answers to anyone; he walks around with a flustered assistant behind him setting up appointments and Doing His Will while he goes from meeting to meeting and responds calmly to frantic employees, instantly giving them workarounds to their problems. We’re introduced to our principals on set: Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, as the ruggedly handsome star of the titular film, where he plays a Roman general who is converted by witnessing the crucifixion; Hobie Doyle (Aldren Ehrenreich), a singing cowboy who they’re trying to transition from oaters to bigger roles; DeeAnna Moran, played by Scarlett Johansson, a swimming starlet a la Esther Williams with a bit of Lana Turner’s love for mobster boys; and Burt Gurney, played with deadpan hilarity by Channing Tatum, as a dancing sailor like Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh!

HC01The film’s a real treat for old movie buffs, and the Coens indulge in their love of Busby Berkeley set pieces. If you though the Dude’s dreams in The Big Lebowski were wacky, the Esther Williams piece where Johansson, in full mermaid garb, is swallowed by a whale and geysered out its blowhole while ringed by synchronized swimmers is ridiculous to behold. When we meet Burt, he’s tap dancing across the bar avoiding a tavern-keeper trying to kick him out. Hobie’s lasso and horseback stunts are out of a Marx Brothers movie, as he swings on a tree branch like a possum to blast the black hats. When Baird Whitlock is kidnapped, Mannix goes into action to keep the studio from collapsing into chaos. But he’s also courting offers from Lockheed. Why they’d want a movie producer, I don’t know.

There’s enough spectacle, slapstick, and screwball dialogue to keep interest, but there’s not much here except a twisty, albeit amusing story set in one big in-joke for ‘50s film buffs. There are conniving Communists and angry writers trying to glam a bite of the pie they’ve been denied, there’s Carlotta Valdes (Hitchcock name-check from Vertigo), a spoof of Carmen Miranda for whom Hobie performs lasso tricks with a limp piece of spaghetti, while he helps Mannix figure out what’s going on. Ralph Fiennes is always great, but here he’s a prima donna director losing his cool because he can’t get a cowboy with a drawl to give good lines in a British costume drama, and the joke just falls flat. More amusing is Christopher Lambert as a German filmmaker, and Clancy Brown as Gracchus, though they never share any scenes, much less swing swords at each other. Supposedly Dolph Lundgren was cut from the submarine scene, which was just absurd enough without him.

As a whole the film may not make it, but the vignettes with great actors simply having fun hamming it up keep it together. Frances McDormand is here of course, playing a nebbishy editor who looks like she accidentally sat on a hungry anteater and is trying to keep her cool. She’s funny before she says a word. The scenes between Whitlock and his kidnappers, and I won’t reveal who they are, but hearing them needle each other while the leading man tries to activate his remaining brain cells unfried from partying are simply brilliant. And watching Brolin—who embodies this role as effortlessly as he became George W. Bush in W.—as he tries to get a Catholic priest, an Orthodox minister, a Protestant reverend, and a rabbi all to sign off on their religious sword and sandal epic is funnier than any joke the four stereotypes have ever been in.

HC02My wife Firecracker isn’t as much as an old movie buff as I am, but she enjoyed Hail Caesar! just as much as I did, so don’t be afraid you won’t get the jokes. They are played big, and even if you don’t know who they’re spoofing, the scenes are just plain funny and manic. And if seeing Wayne Knight try to slip someone a mickey while wearing a toga isn’t worth the price of admission, maybe Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid suit and Channing Tatum bumping butts with a roomful of dancing sailors will be up your alley. It’s certainly more fun than a lot of movies I’ve seen in theaters lately, and I regret waiting for NetFlix on this one.

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim, but unfortunately not as part of a clever heist. Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck