What It’s About
The Coen Brothers have created a breezy Hollywood farce for their 17th film, “Hail, Caesar!” This take on the Golden Age shines when it’s silly but becomes unwieldy with multiple storylines.
Co-writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen present a pastiche of movie genres that were a staple of the old studio system: the Busby Berkeley-style aquatic pictures, corny westerns with a singing cowboy, splashy musicals with a dancing star, sophisticated drawing-room romantic comedies, and the swaggering sword-and-sandal Biblical spectacles.
Those sequences are the high points, shot handsomely by cinematographer Roger Deakins, with dazzling production design work by Jess Gonchor.
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This inside look at how they made these old films is bolstered by a terrific cast, but some marquee names are short-shrifted.
Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men" is a sturdy anchor as Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” who puts out fires and makes sure the stars maintain their wholesome images and don’t get bad press from the powerful columnists, sisters Thora and Thessaly Tacker (Tilda Swinton).
The character names are inspired. George Clooney, in goofy “Burn After Reading” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” mode, has a fun time as hunky, dim-witted actor Baird Whitlock, who is kidnapped by a shady group of Communists called The Future. This is where the plot gets a tad murky.
Whitlock is apprehended while making the movie “Hail, Caesar! The Tale of the Christ” and spends the entire time in his Centurion garb. Clooney’s comic timing is impeccable, and when he’s instructed to “Squint,” he makes the most of the moment.
Also showing his flair for comedy is the brilliant Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) as haughty British director Laurence Laurentz, whose scene coaching the star cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, sorely miscast in a cosmopolitan drawing-room film), is the movie’s best.
Ehrenreich (“Blue Jasmine”) is a standout as Hobie Doyle, a genial hayseed plucked from the rodeo and groomed as a Gene Autry-type actor.
Channing Tatum (“Magic Mike”) shows off his musical skills as the Gene Kelly-like star, while Scarlett Johannson (“The Avengers”) as a scandal-prone Esther Williams-esque bathing beauty with a coarse demeanor has limited scenes. Jonah Hill is just a blip in the story, too.
The glamorous movie business is the draw, while a fine stable of actors entertain, providing the typical quirky elements you expect in a Coen Brothers movie, although this is one of their lighter exercises.
What Doesn’t Work
It’s as if they put a day’s Turner Classic Movies line-up in a blender with a Mad Magazine, and that’s the blueprint. The direction is unclear, the storylines are too sprawling, and mishmash in tone doesn’t help.
However, the film has some very good moments. It’s mostly fluff, but that can be fun. Coen Brothers movies are much anticipated by film buffs, but this isn’t in the exceptional vein of the revered “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona.”
Where art thou going with this one, Joel and Ethan?
- Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
- Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and Alden Ehrenreich
- Rated PG-13 (language, violence and sensuality)
- 100 minutes