Critics Corner: HAIL, CAESAR!

The Coen Brothers love the movies—making them and watching them. Their films often pay homage to classics from The Man Who Wasn’t There with its direct links to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (both black and white murder stories set in Santa Rosa) to O Brother Where Art Thou filled with references to Sullivan’s Travels (a movie about making movies). And now they return with a new behind-the-scenes look at the cinematic creative process so darkly explored with Barton Fink—but this time it is an all-star farce. Read what our film buff critics think about Hail, Caesar!

hailcaesarposterby Daniel Barnes

A large part of the appeal of brother auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen lies in their ability to credibly function in multiple modes and genres. They can easily move from ice-hearted noir-ists to metaphysical theorists to zany pranksters, sometimes within the same scene.  Of all those modes, I’ve come to like their taste for broad comedy the least. The outlier of Raising Arizona aside, films like Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are too big for my taste, too needy to be funny.

Their latest film, the star-studded studio-system picaresque Hail, Caesar!, is being sold as a zany comedy, but there’s actually a lot more going on here.

Continue reading →

Hail-Caesar-600x743

by Randy Myers

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a disappointment, a Coen brothers cocktail that has the bubbles yet lacks the punch. Despite a game cast and a number of detail-rich musical numbers, the siblings’ latest production doesn’t completely gel.

It’s not for lack of ambition. The accomplished filmmakers cram a lot into their unique satire/homage of all things 1950s Hollywood. There’s a colorfully staged aquatic dance sequence featuring an Ethel Merman-like beauty with a potty mouth (a hilarious Scarlett Johansson), a kicky song-and-dance routine anchored around a group sailors led by a Gene Kelly-like hoofer (the dashing Channing Tatum) in a bar, and a grandiose Biblical production with Ben Hur-epic intentions and an established actor (a goofy George Clooney) using his exclamation-point eyebrows when he meets Christ.

Continue reading →

hailcaesarposterHail, Caesar! Barton Dinky

by Daniel Barnes

A large part of the appeal of brother auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen lies in their ability to credibly function in multiple modes and genres. They can easily move from ice-hearted noir-ists to metaphysical theorists to zany pranksters, sometimes within the same scene.  Of all those modes, I’ve come to like their taste for broad comedy the least. The outlier of Raising Arizona aside, films like Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are too big for my taste, too needy to be funny.

Their latest film, the star-studded studio-system picaresque Hail, Caesar!, is being sold as a zany comedy, but there’s actually a lot more going on here. It’s a slavishly recreated vision of the studio system, as well as a playful dismantling of its phony and pious legends. Yet for all of its ambition and splashy style, this is probably the most aggressively mediocre movie that the Coen brothers have made.

Frances McDormand and Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a 1950s studio executive known for his ability to protect his stars and manipulate the press.  Mannix is based on the real-life MGM “fixer” of the same name, but only in the way that Llewyn Davis was based on Dave van Ronk (i.e., loosely).  The Mannix of Hail, Caesar! is a straight-arrow Catholic who takes confession every time he sneaks a cigarette, yet aids and abets all manner of sloth and perversion from his talent, all in a heroic attempt to uphold a crumbling system.

The kidnapping of the studio’s ironclad star Baird Lockhart (George Clooney) becomes the central storyline, but the film never builds any narrative momentum.  Mannix wanders from set to set, and the film wanders from scene to scene, establishing a movies-within-movies-within-movies vibe (a wide shot of the studio where Mannix works looks as fake as the matte painting of ancient Rome) that’s clever and cute without ever paying off in any meaningful way.

As a series of disconnected scenes skewering old Hollywood tropes and stereotypes, Hail, Caesar! is a blast, as when Channing Tatum pops in to perform a vaguely homoerotic musical number, or when scarf-wearing editor Frances McDormand nearly chokes to death on her own Moviola. The production design is predictably meticulous, and the script’s deep-cut references to Nick Schenck and Dave Chasen and Norman Taurog are catnip for cinephiles.

hailphoto6

Scarlett Johansson and Ralph Fiennes in Hail, Caesar!

But as much fun as it is to play “spot the avatar” (Ralph Fiennes in M. Gustave mode as a George Cukor-ian director is a highlight), there’s no center to hold it together.  We never connect with Mannix as a character, and it feels like big chunks of story are missing.  The film moves in stops and starts, and the pace lags considerably between show-stopping sequences.  Characters drop in and out for no good reason, and long stretches are spent with a likeable but largely superfluous supporting character played by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, presumably because he tested well with preview audiences.

A lot of scenes work as ideas, but not as scenes, especially the ones involving a shadowy cabal of Communist screenwriters.  There are still those welcome touches of Coen acidity, such as the unseen actor playing Jesus shyly suggesting that he’s a principal player in his own Crucifixion scene, if only because it gets him a hot breakfast.  As an examination of the post-war, pre-blacklist bravado and hypocrisy of Hollywood, the fantasyland of Hail, Caesar! is at least 10,000 times smarter and more righteous than the based-on-fact TrumboBut as a Joel and Ethan Coen movie, it’s just OK.


Daniel BarnesDaniel Barnes is a film critic for the Sacramento News and Review and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Along with Darcey Self-Barnes, he’s been writing about craft beer for Eat Drink Films in the column (and blog) His & Hers Beer Notes.

 

 

hail-caesar-horiz

Hail-Caesar-600x743 by Randy Myers

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a disappointment, a Coen brothers cocktail that has the bubbles yet lacks the punch. Despite a game cast and a number of detail-rich musical numbers, the siblings’ latest production doesn’t completely gel.

It’s not for lack of ambition. The accomplished filmmakers cram a lot into their unique satire/homage of all things 1950s Hollywood. There’s a colorfully staged aquatic dance sequence featuring an Ethel Merman-like beauty with a potty mouth (a hilarious Scarlett Johansson), a kicky song-and-dance routine anchored around a group sailors led by a Gene Kelly-like hoofer (the dashing Channing Tatum) in a bar, and a grandiose Biblical production with Ben Hur-epic intentions and an established actor (a goofy George Clooney) using his exclamation-point eyebrows when he meets Christ.

Scarlett Johannson in Hail, Caesar!

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

It all sounds flat-out infectious and irresistible. And at points, it is all that  But the affectionate, elbows-to-the-ribs Hollywood numbers, whipped to Technicolor-ish life by visionary cinematographer Roger Deakins, aren’t always seamlessly woven into the story’s organic fabric. A disjointed feeling hounds a screenplay so breezily constructed by the Coens that it all but muffles these pop-the-cork moments. This is a film that strings together vignettes, and the script’s episodic hopscotching nature fails to fully engage us like it should.

Hail, Caesar! centers on the day-in/day-out responsibilities of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Eddie is a busy guy, an expert whether he’s solving the PR nightmare of the unexpected pregnancy of American-sweetheart actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) or corralling Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as he ventures out of his limited acting range in a Broadway film adaptation. Eddie can handle just about anything, even a meeting of religious leaders to ensure that the Capital Pictures’ latest religious-themed spectacle Hail, Caesar! doesn’t offend (one of the film’s most sparkling moments).

hailphoto7

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!

But his biggest headache – besides snuffing out a cigarette habit or deciding whether to jump this chaotic Hollywood ship and take a lucrative offer at Lockheed – arrives when Brad Whitlock (Clooney), star of Caesar!, is kidnapped off the set just when the big-budget spectacle enters its final bloated lap. The race is now on to get the rather disengaged Brad out of the clutches of his kidnappers. I’m not going to divulge who these bozo culprits are and why they’re kidnapping this self-absorbed actor, but I can say that I think it’s one of the film’s weakest elements.

The strongest parts feature up-and-comer Ehrenreich as the endearing but dim-bulbed rodeo-star-turned-actor Hobie Doyle. His exchanges with Ralph Fiennes, hamming it up so delightfully as stuffy director Laurence Larentz, are classic, as the uncertain Hobie continually mangles a pivotal dramatic scene much to the disintegrating patience of the unflappable and soon to be flustered Larentz. It’s the film’s highlight, and it is played to noteworthy perfection by Ehrenreich, whose homespun presence fires up the picture, much as he did in the undervalued tween-lit adaptation Beautiful Creatures.

Others in the cast  tap into the zippy Coen spirit, notably Tatum – who continues to show he’s a dynamite comic actor and a good singer – along with Tilda Swinton, playing sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker – each of whom is trying to out scoop the other. She’s delicious.

hailphoto5

Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

All these characters are ripe with comic potential, and while the actors playing them get a chance to tear it up during key scenes, there’s a sense of a missed opportunity as they are in the film too briefly. Fewer characters and more of a focus on the ones that remain could have made Hail, Caesar! Sharper and more pointed.

But even though this qualifies as mid-tier Coen brothers – a step below Burn After Reading but more than a few steps above Intolerable Cruelty — it still has the unique Coen flair that makes it a worthwhile trip to the theater.


sundance-randy-mugRandy Myers is president of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and is a longtime movie writer for Bay Area News Group, for whom he still freelances. He is also a certified personal trainer and group exercise instructor.

 

  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)
  • Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton
  • Directors and writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and smoking)

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