In the Coen Brothers latest “Hail Caesar!” we have exactly the same Hollywood-based mix of communist writers and Hedda Hopper-style gossip columnists as recently seem in “Trumbo”: but the films could hardly be more different.
“Hail Caesar!” is the film within the film: the latest Victor Mature style ‘God and Sandals’ epic for Capitol Pictures, starring the megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Trying to keep this movie on track – together with all the other movies being concurrently filmed – is tough no-nonsense fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). These other movies include an Esther William’s style water ballet starring gal-in-trouble DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); an Anchor’s Aweigh-style musical starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum); and a pot-boiling drama featuring non-acting singing-cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich).
To add to Mannix’s tension, Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped before the final climactic Crucifixion scene can be filmed. Who’s behind the plot and why, and can Mannix restore order while keeping the story out of the eye of voracious journalist twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both Tilda Swinton)?
The film plays out as a series of loosely connected vignettes, some much more successful than others. Johansson’s water ballet, and indeed her entire sub-plot, is all rather dull and irrelevant and in my opinion could happily have been ditched.
Channing Tatum however is a revelation as a song and dance man in a Gene Kelly tribute. His song and dance number was for me the best part of the film and I could watch this stuff all day: I would personally LOVE IT if someone would make a complete retro-feature film in this ilk. Watch out too for Christopher Lambert (“Highlander”) as his almost incomprehensible Swiss director.
Capturing the most attention though is young Ehrenreich as the upcoming star without a clue. Many of his scenes, especially those with classical director Laurence Laurentz (a brilliant Ralph Fiennes) are hilarious.
Popping up in cameos are Jonah Hill (as the fixer’s well paid ‘man to take the rap’); Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) as a dottie film editor who really shouldn’t wear scarves; and Robert Picardo (“Star Trek Voyager”) as the Jewish representative in a contentious meeting of religious representatives discussing Christ’s portrayal in the film (“So, a priest, a Protestant, a Greek Orthodox and a Jew walked into a studio…”).
Having last year enormously enjoyed the studio tour at Warner Brother’s studios in LA (HIGHLY recommended if you can book ahead for when you are in town) it was great to see the studios making an actual film there again (as opposed to TV). Cinematographer Roger Deakin has great fun suffusing the studio and everything else with a 50’s glow, an effect extending to the old 4:3 screen format (which I can see generating some “my DVD is defective” returns in a few months!)
Is it any good? I think it’s fair to say that this is a ‘Marmite’ movie (which if you are non-British is a way of saying that the film will massively divide opinion). I’ve not seen as many people walk out of a film at the cinema in recent years.
I personally found it a light-hearted and nostalgic trip into a golden age of studio-management, show-casing again the comic gurning talents of Clooney (particularly prevalent in the scene where he gets slapped around a bit and which demonstrates his range – as if we needed reminding after “The Descendants”). Brolin is great as the straight-guy Mannix and most of the rest of the cast add value, though Johansson seems Ill at ease with her role. I’m also afraid 2 x Swinton is not equal to 1 x Mirren in “Trumbo”. But it is Alden Ehrenreich that is the real acting find of the film – a breakout role for him after more minor roles in films like “Stoker” and “Blue Jasmine”.
This is not the best Coen brothers film, being patchy and spasmodic and, in places, rather too clever for its own good. I got the same feeling watching bits of this (for example, the writer’s meeting scene) as I do in many Woody Allen films: that I am not politically / philosophically intelligent enough to understand the niceties of the script (and I’m considered quite bright!). This can be a bit alienating for an audience.
If I think back to all its numerous sub-parts it was often in 4-Fad+ territory…. but overall it’s lack of cohesive story arc brings the overall confection down a notch or two.
Fad Rating: FFFf.