Friends, Romans, countrymen
A film that has virtually no plot, but gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to pay tribute to just about every kind of movie Hollywood was making in the ’40s and ’50s by adapting the styles of those films into their weirdo universe?
Hell, yeah. Sign me up.
The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans, including myself, a little worried. It was moved out of the 2015 awards season and dumped into February, usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.
In truth, this movie probably scores highest with diehard Coen fans, those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered the most classic of writer’s block all the way back in 1991.
While there is the obvious nod to Barton Fink, the film that Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! is a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.
It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand one hundred grand in ransom money.
Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton in increasingly hilarious wardrobe), navigating the latest scandal of studio star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting hot director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.
The plot is paper thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly musicals, and more. The film is comprised of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast to behold. On top of that, the movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.
The Coens have a way with making small moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula-hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. Right there with it is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s just something wrong with you.
For sheer show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s a sequence that is at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented, the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.
I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a seriously grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.