Friday, February 5, 2016

A Reel Review: HAIL CAESAR!

The latest from filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen, HAIL CAESAR!, is a true love letter to a forgotten era in Hollywood. Taking place in the 1950’s, it was a time when studios cranked out fun films like Old Westerns with singing cowboys, lavish musicals with tap-dancing sailors, Biblical epics packed with over-the-top characters and long speeches…along with sneaky gossip columnists who were the only sources of information for people with a hunger for news of their favorite stars and starlets. It is an era that the Coens likely found a lot of inspiration from in their formative years, and a perfect setting for a simple, yet fun adventure.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” for a big studio who takes care of big problems to keep the big wheels turning. When big star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of disgruntled writers while filming a major movie, Mannix sets out to solve the mystery…along with juggling an un-married pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johannson), and a young Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich) who has to improve his acting.

HAIL CAESAR! roughly covers just over 24 hours in the busy life of Eddie Mannix as he goes from set to set, office to office, and situation to situation trying to keep scandals from hitting the front pages and the production of many major motion pictures from shutting down. The central task of Mannix, to get Whitlock back, takes up much of the film, and isn’t presented as a mystery or a whodunit, but instead focuses on the Why of it all. Where Whitlock is taken and by whom is answered pretty early on, and with that answered the mystery shifts over to the inside man in the studio who made it all happen.

There’s a lot going on in HAIL CAESAR! as Mannix races from one mess to another (including a sub-plot where he is being offered a new job for a lot of money and a lot less stress), and for a while it feels like the mystery of Whitlock’s kidnapping is being treated as secondary. There’s also an episodic feeling going on as several characters appear with new sets of problems (this would make a tremendous TV series), and the film feels like it may be disjointed. But these are the Coens in charge of this production, and every plotline and character comes together nicely by the end, and even before. Some nice twists and turns come about, and through some clever scripting, ties everything up neatly.

Setting the film in a 1950’s Hollywood studio gives the Coens as much freedom as a kid in a large sandbox. The film bounces from set to set with singing and lasso-throwing cowboys (brilliantly played by Alden Ehrenreich, who is channeling Gene Autry and Roy Rogers), big-water pool musicals, and a tap-dancing sequence by WWII sailors led by Channing Tatum which has to be seen to be believed. The Coens are having a blast re-creating a very special time in Hollywood, and it’s enough to make us yearn for those days again. For a cinephile, HAIL CEASAR! is a treat.

Acting is superb. George Clooney plays the part of a big star who is clueless about the real world perfectly, and Josh Brolin is a joy to watch as the determined straight-man with a lot on his plate. Scarlett Johansson has to lay on a thick and tough Brooklyn accent and nails it, while again, Channing Tatum’s tap-dance routine is outrageously fun. Cameos by Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton (who plays the role of twin-sister gossip columnists) are all handled well. Despite all the star power, the show is truly stolen by young Alden Ehrenreich as an Old West star; who channels the stars of old into a bright and joyful performance.

With the proceedings taking place in Hollywood the Coens are given the chance to let the big climax of the film take place on the set of a movie which is in its own climactic scene, which makes it twice as effective and double the fun. Joel and Ethan Coen have put together not only a homage to a long-dead era of movie-making, but an incredibly fun romp that can’t be experienced enough. HAIL CAESAR, indeed.


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