Thursday, February 11, 2016

Guest Post: Hail Caesar (2016)

By Jonas Schwartz

If you polled twenty Coen Brothers fans and asked for their favorite and least favorite Coen Bros movie, you'd barely get the same answer for either question, and several would be on both lists. 

The Coen Bros' films are divisive, tapping into different experiences for different people. I personally loved the daffy brutality and nutty characters of Intolerable Cruelty (2003), but I've seen it on many worst lists of all times. Their latest film, Hail, Caesar (2016), a spoof of the Hollywood Studio Machine, is a visual buffet of bright colors and striking camera movements with pitch perfect deconstructions of genre films. This script is fluff though, with nothing substantial enough to provoke more than a passing interest.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) runs Capitol Studios and is the ultimate fixer. An ingénue has a proclivity with taking naughty pictures? He slaps her into shape. America's sweetheart is knocked up? A sanctioned husband can be immediately ordered.

But when Capitol's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of a lavish Roman epic, putting the studio finances in jeopardy, Mannix begins to lose faith in his job. Could the sweet deal Lockheed has offered be worth a change of scene?

The Coen Brothers have captured the look and feel of the studio system, from the manipulative money-men to the flaky stars, from the salacious-seeking gossip columnists to the horny foreign directors. The vibrant colors of the shooting films are a stock contrast to the noir world behind-the-scenes of rainy streets and naughty behaviors.

Several genres are lovingly reflected in the movies shot at the studio: A frothy drawing room comedy where everyone's dressed to the nines, an Esther Williams water escapade with Busby Berkeley-esque kaleidoscope images and Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid costume, a tap dancing extravaganza with dainty sailors and a bright smiled Channing Tatum, and the title movie, a huge Roman spectacle with enough columns, bacchanals, and messiahs to make Ben Hur look like an elementary school pageant.

The all-star cast is a delight. Clooney is all bluster and ego as the befuddled celebrity. Tatum gives Gene Kelly a run for his money as a tap dancing, singing dynamo with a secret agenda. Johansson, with a sparkling smile and a guttural accent, is zany as the swimming star. Tilda Swinton steals the film (as she does every one) as twin sister versions of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who are always stealing each other's scoops and have a predilection for feathered hats. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is charming as the Tom Mix-like singing cowboy who's forced to swap his lasso for a tuxedo and star in a movie that actually requires line readings.

The film revolves around Brolin and he's stalwart as the movie executive, but he's also the character audiences are forced with whom to identify. He's a bully, who smacks women, infantilizes actors, and treats his position at the studio with delusions of grandeur. He's a noir hero version of Louis B Meyer, a tyrant who believes the studio is the most treasured asset, and all humans are there to serve the beast. The film's enjoyment will predicate if one wants to spend two hours with this man.

The script goes in so many directions, so it's difficult to invest in anyone. The stories become vignettes, always returning to Mannix, a character worthy of secondary status, not as the protagonist. There are many clever touches and hysterical lines, including a conspiracy that realizes all the fears that Joseph McCarthy stirred up in the 40s and 50s.

Roger Deakins' cinematography and the production design, led by Jess Gonchor, are a movie geek's wet dream. Mary Zophres' costumes are a crash course in Hollywood Studio expertise.

Hail, Caesar should be seen by anyone who reveres old Hollywood. The glamour hides the chintz and corruption. But nothing resonates after leaving the theater. The experience is over by time the credits roll. 

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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