Monday, February 15, 2016

Hollywood Parables: Hail Caesar!, Reviewed

I was pretty excited this weekend to have the opportunity to see two different movies in the theatre, the first of which was the Coen Brothers period movie movie Hail Caesar! Like most of the Coens' films, it is not for everyone, and even a lot of people who consider themselves fans have left scathing reviews on sites like IMDb.

Let me begin by saying that Hail Caesar! is terribly marketed, leaving one the impression that there will be far more hijinks ensuing than there really are, but to be completely fair, I haven't the foggiest idea how I would have marketed the film either. I will, however, leave the promotions department on the hook for a trailer that not only misrepresents the movie a bit, but also includes far too much content from the last 15 minutes, and which lets almost all the air out of one of the final gags by telegraphing the punchline.

The story is set in 1950s Hollywood, and revolves around studio 'fixer' Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the morally conflicted hard man with a soft heart who spends his lengthy workdays solving, concealing or removing problems that could cast his employer, Capitol Pictures, in a bad light. Over the course of the story these problems range from keeping a budding starlet out of a set of saucy postcards, helping another conceal her pregnancy, arranging a cowboy star to take the reins of an auteur's drama, and most notably, dealing with the missing star of "Hail Caesar!" (George Clooney) who has been kidnapped by a couple of extras.

Hail Caesar! is presented as a comedy, and there are quite a few laughs in it, especially if you appreciate the Coens' fascination with the way different people talk, and their depictions of differing accents, outlooks, temperaments and professions. The truth be told though, this movie works not as well as a tepid comedy than it does as a humorous philosophy lesson.

The crux of the movie revolves around why we do what we do, approaching from angles both religious and economic, artistic and commercial. While considering a lucrative job offer from head hunters at Lockheed aviation, Eddie resents the headhunters' implication that his work is essentially babysitting crackpots and somehow isn't serious, isn't 'real' because, after all, it's 'only' the movies, only make believe.

Meanwhile in the film within a film, George Clooney's Roman tribune wrestles with conscience after meeting the Son of God at a well in Palestine, and tries to reconcile a lifetime of belief against the grandeur he has witnessed. Not long after this, the actor finds himself discussing history and economics with his kidnappers, apparently unaware of the Communist nature of their arguments, even when he underlines their maxims with anecdotes featuring other celebrities.

For a Coen comedy, Hail Caesar! is almost astonishingly languid, with no real set pieces or frantic climax. More energy is spent establishing the period, which they do with their passionate eyes for detail and the staging of an aquatic ballet and big song and dance number, something modern audiences are long unaccustomed to.

For my money, it is worth the price of admission to watch Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a humble singing cowboy being groomed for bigger things by the studio and all too willing to let them change his image. It begins with a brilliantly painful interaction with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as the latter struggles to deal with the Oklahoma drawl and limited vocabulary of the former, but Hobie is not just another hick caricature, and goes on to show tremendous insight and character.

We all had a good time at Hail Caesar!, but I empathize with those that didn't. There is a lot at play here for a comedy, and it doesn't always work. But for a morality tale that incorporates both the glitz and grit of classic Hollywood under the iron thumbs of the studio system, fans of the Coens, film history, or any of the ensemble cast they managed to draw in, it was an evening well spent in both thought and laughter.

This trailer gives you a much better idea of the tone and pace of the film than the first one; if you find this amusing (as I did), you should probably check it out; if it bores you, the film is to be avoided.

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