Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Aw, Hail!

Readers familiar with my tepid-at-best response to most Coen Brothers movies should get the salt shaker ready. You might want a grain or two to accompany my thoughts on their latest effort: Hail, Caesar!

If it had been released in November rather than February, you might expect Hail, Caesar! to be in the Oscar conversation. It is, after all, what Hollywood loves best: a movie about the movies! Set in the early 1950s, the movie follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix as he wrangles stars, buries scandals, and keeps everything running smoothly. His latest challenge comes when a group of communists abducts the star of the studio's new epic and holds him for ransom.

There are a lot of sequences in this movie that really entertain, pure love letters to a style of movie-making long gone. Scarlett Johansson performs an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style aquatic ballet. Channing Tatum gives an extended song and tap routine that would make Gene Kelly proud. Alden Ehrenreich performs preposterous cowboy stunts, and then even more hilariously fumbles through an attempt at serious dramatic acting. There's savvy historical commentary too, as the movie skewers the notion that Hollywood writers, living in fear of being blacklisted, could ever actually be a credible threat on behalf of communism.

Of course, half of Hollywood (or more) would be eager to line up just for a half dozen lines in a Coen Brothers movie. So Hail, Caesar! has a stacked cast, including (besides those I named above) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Clancy Brown, Robert Picardo, Michael Gambon, and more. That they're all clearly have fun makes the movie's best scenes work.

But in the way of so many Coen Brothers movies (in my eyes), the best parts of the movie aren't what the movie is really about. The fixer is the least compelling character in this tale. The script seems to know it too, as only around half the run time is devoted to his narrative. When the movie follows the plot, it does so half-heartedly, and immediately drags the momentum down. Then the next one-off set piece arrives to breathe new life into the movie, and the cycle repeats.

Hail, Caesar! ultimately feels to me like a series of sketches that work, contained within a story that really doesn't. If you're a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood (or of the Coens), then you're sure to enjoy it. I, as usual, had more of a love-hate reaction to the movie. I'd give it a C- overall.

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