Monday, January 2, 2017

Reconsidering "Hail, Caesar!"

Last February I reviewed Hail, Caesar!, the most recent film by the Coen Brothers, rating it as a pleasant but middling entrant in their catalogue (my post is included at the bottom of this piece).  A couple of nights ago, I rewatched the film which caused me to reconsider my original assessment.  Though still not one of their classics, it is much better than I originally thought.

The film operates at two levels.  The first, and most accessible, is as a funny and frivolous tribute to the Hollywood studio system of the early 1950s.  On rewatching I found it funnier, with sharp writing and clever references to other Coen Brothers films.  George Clooney is perfect for this type of film.

It was the second aspect that became clearer to me on a second viewing; the serious themes just below the surface.  The movie tells a story of faith versus science, appropriate since the studio is in the midst of making its blockbuster epic, Hail, Caesar! (think of a cross between Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis).

The lead character, Eddie Mannix, the studio's fixer/publicist/general manager, is a devout Catholic.  Played by Josh Brolin, who does a terrific job giving a gravitas to his character without which the rest of the movie would just float away, is confronted on one side by subversive communists who proclaim a knowledge of economics that explains history and if properly applied would allow humans to scientifically manage everything with certain knowledge of outcomes and, on the other, by a tempting job offer from the Lockheed corporation, whose representative forcefully makes the case for the aviation company being the future of technology and on the cutting edge of science, in contrast to the outmoded, chaotic world of Hollywood.

Along with faith versus science, we also have utopianism versus practicality, or dreamers versus those who get things done, the reliable guys you can count on.  Mannix is a fixer; a man of faith who can be relied upon to solve problems.  He's willing to tackle the tough job at the studio enduring constant strain, long hours, and separation from his family, sacrificing himself, rather than take what he sees as a simpler, less stressful role at Lockheed.  Meanwhile the commie screenwriters are portrayed as impractical fools, for all their prattling about the scientific validity of their theories.  The  screenwriters revisit territory first staked out by the Coen Brothers in their 1991 film, Barton Fink, in which John Turturro plays the title character, a 1930s leftist screenwriter determined to write for "the common man" though having little actual interest in the thoughts of common men.  In a fitting touch Capitol Pictures is the studio which hires Barton Fink in the 1930s and employs Eddie Mannix in the 1950s.  Good continuity, bros!

The practical theme shows up in two other characters.  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) at first seems to be a simple-minded singing cowboy star of B movies, but is revealed to be a very shrewd, self-deprecating, decent, and self-aware fellow who, when called upon, is the only actor who can give Mannix practical advice and then take action.  It's also reinforced in a subplot involving aquatic superstar DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson), who, to the studio's potential embarrassment finds herself pregnant and without a husband.  DeeAnna bemoans the lack of "a good reliable man" to marry.  When she later meets Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), the surety agent through whom proper arrangements for the baby will be made (to understand the Hollywood background, read this), her first question is "and he's reliable?"  Since Silverman proves to be the most reliable man in Hollywood, it comes as no surprise that DeeAnna quickly marries him.

It turns out Hail, Caesar! works well at both levels and I definitely recommend it.

(February 2016 Review)

A pleasant diversion from the Coen Brothers.  Not one of their top-tier efforts such as The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, or Raising Arizona, nor one of their misfires like The Ladykillers or Inside Llewyn Davis.

If you like Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, circa 1951, and the films of that era you'll find a lot to enjoy.  Set in a Hollywood studio, the plot, such as it is, revolves around the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who is in the midst of filming the studio's epic about Jesus entitled Hail, Caesar!  The movie also features song and dance numbers, a spectacular water film a la Esther Williams, Chinese restaurants, an ecumenical review board for Hail, Caesar with a Catholic priest, Protestant minister, Orthodox bishop and rabbi, and a cabal of Communist screenwriters.

The movie revolves around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's production head and chief fixer.  Brolin is terrific and most of the cast is solid.  Clooney reprises the numbskull roll he's played so effectively before for the Coens in O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty.  He's particularly funny discoursing on the dialectic after being brainwashed by the Commies.

Scarlett Johansson plays the Esther Williams-type character (no way can that be bad), Channing Tatum is the song and dance guy, with more going on than initially appears, Tilda Swinton plays characters based on Hollywood gossip legends Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Wayne Knight (Newman!) has a small, but pivotal part.

Best of all is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an aw-shucks, singing cowboy and stunt man who turns out to be a lot sharper than it first seems and Veronica Osorio as Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda type actress.  It's fun to watch Ehrenreich and Osorio's interplay in their two scenes together.

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