Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed, Wayne Knight
Joel and Ethan Coen are back with a tribute to the golden days of Hollywood. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio fixer for Capitol Pictures Studios. Their current film Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ is the studio’s biggest film to date. He doesn’t want to offend anyone in its depiction of Christ so he’s brought on some advisors to get their opinion on the matter. I’ll have more on that later in this review. George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, the lead star of the film. He’s a fumbling actor that may be passed his prime. One day on set, his chalice is spiked by one of the extras (Knight) in between takes. He passes out on the lot and is kidnapped by a Communist Party group known as The Future. Eddie receives a ransom note from the group for $100,000 and is desperate to keep this a secret before it gets to the gossip magazines. That wish is already squashed when Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), a pair of twin sister reporters, start pressuring him for updates.
If only this was Eddie’s sole problem. He must deal with other needy actors who are causing the studio issues with their own problems. The Esther Williams-inspired DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) finds out she is pregnant and no longer fitting in her mermaid costume. Relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a young cowboy actor who ends up replacing another actor on a period picture directed by the prestigious Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). Then there’s Burt Gurney (Tatum) who will sing and tap dance his little heart out but has a little secret of his own.
Time and time again the Coen Brothers create such widely diverse films. There is literally something for everyone in their filmography. They are Oscar nominees this year for co-writing Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Their last time behind the camera was for their 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. It was a moody film about a struggling folk singer that didn’t sit well with some due to its tone and disgruntled lead character. If you’ve ever thought there is too much violence or profanity in their films like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, you may enjoy Hail, Caesar! as this is on the “cleaner” side.
The film is part physical comedy and part film noir with swimming mermaids, tap dancing sailors, cowboys, and Roman soldiers all set in an old Hollywood setting. Like the studio itself, it’s a hodge podge of styles and moods. Overall, it’s one of the goofiest Coen films. They are no strangers to comedies if you’ve seen O, Brother Where Art Though? or The Big Lebowski. The dialogue is snappy with perfectly timed comedic banter between characters. I mentioned earlier about Eddie Mannix not wanting to offend anyone. He calls a meeting with a priest, a rabbi, a reverend, and a few others and the scene plays out like the classic “priest and rabbi walk into a…” joke. They have a way of writing dialogue and having it executed that makes the scene look as if the actors are improvising their way through it when in fact they write out every word and punctuation. There’s another bit that left me in stitches regarding Frances McDormand’s character who is an editor at the studio. I’d ruin the bit if I tried to explain it here. It also helps that they probably write their characters with specific actors in mind, like McDormand who is Joel’s wife and has starred in many of their films.
Like McDormand, the film is a who’s who of actors they have worked with before including George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Fred Melamed, and the always perfect Tilda Swinton. It’s their fourth film with Clooney who rarely does comedies outside of his work with them. Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich, Jonah Hill, and Ralph Fiennes are all new to the company. Many of them only have one or two scenes but they’re all having a barrel of fun playing characters that are slightly dopey. Channing Tatum does all of his own singing and tap dancing in the film. This may be his audition for future movie musicals, like the long-rumored Guys and Dolls remake. Alden Ehrenreich, who’s best known for films like Beautiful Creatures and Stoker, is a standout in this A-list cast. He is a hoot as Hobie Doyle. Doyle is great at being the cowboy, but has troubles with actual dialogue when he has to deliver it to his fellow actress. Ralph Fiennes as the director steps in, and their exchanges together are priceless.
Hail, Caesar! surprised me with the light and simplistic approach taken by the Coens. It’s not nearly as deep or thought provoking as I had assumed it would be given some of their other films. Their other comedies can be dark or twisted, yet here it’s a broad sense of humor that is perfectly timed out with each and every bit. Many of them aren’t always necessary to the storyline, yet they work perfectly. It’s a true testament to their style of working with actors when their cast will say yes and do whatever they ask no matter how goofy or small the part happens to be. It’s not just the actors, but the designers that come back as well. The Coens are working with some of their frequent collaborators like cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. The film will leave you chuckling at how ridiculous some of it is, and that’s perfectly fine.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? The first great movie of 2016
RATING: 4 out of 5 Ticket Stubs