Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: "Hail, Caesar!"

At some point the Coen brothers are going to remember they're funny. Not this time, though.

"Hail, Caesar!" is the latest from the writer/producer/director siblings, Joel and Ethan, and the latest strikeout. It's not nearly as dour as "Inside Llewyn Davis," nor does it have the dragging sense of self-importance of the overpraised "No Country for Old Men."

But the fact that "Hail" is actually trying to be caustic and funny, and fails pretty miserably at it, perhaps makes the disappointment even more keen.

It's a daffy send-up of the Hollywood studio system circa 1950, when chiefs ran the show and stars were just playthings to be shuffled and traded like cards in a deck. It's the sort of movie in which everybody comes off looking bad -- the behind-the-scenes overlords, the dimwitted actors, the narcissistic directors, the nosy press, the whole kebab.

Even the screenwriters, who usually get portrayed as the put-upon heroes of the trade, are seen as stooges of the Communists, happily spouting Marxist theory but really desiring more of the dough and limelight for themselves.

The Coens doubtless intended this as caricature, a joke-within-a-joke about how artistic types were often viewed during the McCarthy era. Call me old fashioned, but I just don't find the Blacklist every funny.

The central character is Eddie Mannix, the fixit man for Capital Pictures. The sign on his office door says Head of Physical Production, but he really runs the studio on a day-to-day basis while the man ostensibly in charge keeps a careful remove in New York. Mannix's job is a quotidian nightmare of putting out fires, making sure the trains run on time, preventing the embarrassing stuff from getting into the press and keeping the tantrums/temptations of the stars to a manageable minimum.

Things go haywire when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of the Roman drama that bears the title of this film. It's Mannix' big prestige picture for the year, and soon the gossip columns have heard about the disappearance -- including rival sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton.

The kidnappers are... not terribly organized. They're a bunch of egghead scriptmen who bring Baird to a beatific beachside home, still in his Roman soldier get-up. They don't even bother to lock the doors, and we wonder why he doesn't simply walk up the driveway and thumb a ride back to town. But Baird is fascinated by the lefty "scientific theory" of the crew, who apparently just requisitioned it from a visiting professor. He happily chats them up, trading stories about drinking with Clark Gable, having to shave Danny Kaye's back and such.

Hanging around the periphery is Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy star in the mold of Audie Murphy who's just been asked to change his image with a switch to erudite romantic dramas. Deliciously played by Alden Ehrenreich, Hobie is hopelessly ill-equipped for anything more than ridin' and ropin', but gamely gives it a go.

If Baird is dim, then Hobie's mind is just about pitch black. But somehow the simpleminded, earnest young star always seems to point himself in the right direction, while Mannix and his henchmen are confounded by the kidnapping.

Also turning up in bit roles -- just a scene or two apiece -- are Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, an uppity director trying fruitlessly to whip Hobie into thespian shape; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, a swimsuit beauty a la Esther Williams who's more Bronx moll than angel; Jonah Hill as the ever-ready fall guy; Frances McDormand as the editing whiz toiling in her cave; and Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man.

Tatum shines in one of the better scenes, a homoerotic romp with a bunch of Navy sailors already missing the dames as they're about to put to sea. Kelly was light as a feather on his feet, while Tatum's tapping has a more of a lumbering quality to it, but I still appreciated the effort.

"Hail, Caesar!" is a wonderful-looking picture, photographed by Roger Deakins in the saturated colors and crisp tones of the era. The Coens seem to be having a grand old time, amusing themselves with musical numbers and other homages to Golden Age Hollywood -- while simultaneously undercutting the whole industry as trivial and silly.

It's a schizophrenic film without much narrative semblance or sense of purpose. A few bits dazzle, fool's gold for those of us who used to believe the Coens could do no wrong.

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