Monday, June 6, 2016

Hail, Coens!

Now this is more like it.  After I was unable to connect to the Coens' last two films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "True Grit," I was worried that their charms were wearing off for me.  And these two are among my favorite directors who are still breathing, so that was a pretty alarming prospect.  Fortunately, along came "Hail Caesar!" their out-and-out comedic Golden Age Hollywood spoof.  And I couldn't be more thrilled.  This isn't one of their best films, but it's awfully entertaining, and absolute catnip to a classic film fan like me.  It falls into the category of their playful genre pieces like "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"  Actually, it feels like several all crammed together into one movie.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the production chief and "fixer" at movie studio Capitol Pictures.  It's the early 1950s, and the studio currently has the following films in production: "Hail, Caesar!" a costly sword and sandals prestige epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is kidnapped from the set by extras, "Merrily We Dance," an upper crust costume drama directed by the erudite Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and starring an abruptly rebranded Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and the latest feature of bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen), who is secretly pregnant and needs to get married in a hurry.  It's Eddie's job to make sure that all of these productions stay on track and that all the various stars steer clear of scandal.  Also in the mix are Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor, Tilda Swinton as twin reporters, Frances McDormand as a film editor, and far too many cameos to count.

I'm hard pressed to think of a film that feels more like an excuse for the filmmakers to just recreate bits of old films that they enjoyed.  An Esther Williams-esque water ballet number featuring a mechanical whale and Scalrett Johanssen in a fishtail?  A beautifully choreographed comic dance scene reminiscent of "Anchors Aweigh"  with a delightfully swishy Channing Tatum?  A submarine captained by Dolph Ludgren?  Why not?  Around every corner there's a fascinating new character to spend a few minutes with, and unlike a few of the other Coens' films, I didn't mind that most of the stories didn't really have a resolution or add up to much in particular.  I had a ball just getting to meet all these characters and becoming caught up in their crazy problems for a little while.  "Hail, Caesar!" plays enough like a television pilot that I can dream of having a whole series where we'd check in on the further adventures of Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle every week.

Of course, you could never do a longer series with the same collection of talent.  For all the stars that show up in this movie, it was Alden Ehrenreich who ended up running away with it.  He plays Hobie as a good-natured Southern kid who is completely incompetent as an actor.  However, he's such a trouper and such a good guy, that you can't help rooting for him.  Late in the film he goes on a date with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) and does the most charming things with a plate of spaghetti that I've seen since "Lady and the Tramp."  George Clooney plays another in his long line of great comic morons, and Josh Brolin is as dependable as ever as the weary straight man to all these over-the-top personalities.  And then there are the production values, which are gorgeous.  The Coens' period recreations always look fabulous, and their vision of Golden Age Hollywood film production is no exception.  I loved the Channing Tatum musical number just for the way it lets us peek in on what the crew is doing during the scene, while not taking away from the singing and dancing.

What I found the least successful were the allusions toward larger themes.  Religion and faith come up a few times in connection to the "Hail, Caesar!" film within a film.  A Communist study group also plays a major role, trying to lure various players away from the clutches of capitalism.  Mannix, struggling with his own questions of morality as he takes care of everyone's dirty laundry, spends a lot of the film weighing what it is he really believes and what his responsibilities are.  Except, none of these threads really come together well enough to feel like anything meaningful in aggregate.  A few nice sentiments are presented, but there's nothing much deeper there.

The same can be said of the film itself.  It's not a great film from the Coens, but a diverting and enjoyable one if you take it on its own terms.  It helps to be at least a little familiar with both the subject matter being skewered and the Coens' unique brand of skewering.

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