*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Joel & Ethan Coen
STARS Josh Brolin, George Clooney
George Clooney and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! (Photo: Universal)
While Woody Allen spent the midsection of his career wowing critics and audiences with the philosophical likes of Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, there were many who already were feeling nostalgic for the comparatively lightweight comedies he made earlier in his career, laugh-packed gems like Sleeper and Bananas. Woody himself even addressed this issue in 1980's Stardust Memories, when a Martian informs his character, a successful filmmaker attempting to switch from making comedies to making meaningful dramas, that "We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones."
Joel and Ethan Coen, those cinematic Siamese twins collectively known as the Coen Brothers, have spent much of their careers dealing with the opposite problem. Their weightier pictures, those that go heavy on the drama, the violence and/or the existential angst, tend to rack up the accolades and awards (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, among others). Yet the downside for the siblings is that when they let their long hair down and produce a breezy and straightforward comedy, many critics and fans grumble that they're simply coasting, that they're making movies beneath them, and that they're too valuable as filmmakers to simply offer nothing more than nyuks.
Their cotton-candy confections may lack the gravitas of their loftier titles, but since when is it a celluloid sin to offer audiences nothing more, nothing less, than a good time at the movies? In this respect, Hail, Caesar!, the latest straight-up comedy from the dynamic duo, is sure to join other underappreciated larks like Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading and especially The Hudsucker Proxy. If you consider yourself a Coenhead and yet hate those particular pictures, it's pretty much guaranteed you're not gonna like this one, either. But for those who can appreciate the possibilities inherent in all of the team's output, not just the "important" ones, then prepare to be greatly amused for a couple of hours.
Extremely episodic in nature, the film centers on the shenanigans occurring at Capitol Pictures in the early 1950s (Capitol Pictures, some fans might recall, was the same fictional studio from the Coens' 1991 effort Barton Fink). The title refers to the film-within-a-film, a Biblical epic in which a Roman soldier played by A-list star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is spiritually transformed upon encountering Jesus (its subtitle of A Tale of the Christ links it to Ben-Hur, which also sported the same cinematic hashtag, yet its plot draws as much from The Robe and Quo Vadis). It's Capitol's biggest picture of the year, which is why everyone is in an uproar when Whitlock disappears. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is immediately put on the case — a Hollywood "fixer," he's responsible for keeping all of the studio's stars out of the gossip columns. Initially assuming that Whitlock is either out on a bender or shacked up with some starlet, he soon learns that the matinee idol has instead been kidnapped by a clandestine outfit billing itself as The Future.
The kidnapping isn't the only bit of business taking up Eddie's time. He also has to figure out how to handle the fact that DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an actress with a wholesome image, is pregnant and will have a baby born out of wedlock. Then there's the situation with Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an aw-shucks cowboy star who's being thrust into a British melodrama directed by respected director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — Hobie's John Wayne gait and country-fried accent aren't exactly natural fits for a drawing-room picture. Between these crises and the pesky appearances of gossip columnists and twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton), it's no wonder Eddie is considering a career change by accepting an offer from Lockheed — working with nuclear bombs seems like a cush job by comparison.
Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (Photo: Universal)
Although it takes some liberties with the manner in which the Hollywood dream factory operated, Hail, Caesar! is nevertheless an honorable look back at the olden, golden days of the studio system, when most movies were filmed on backlots and actors had strict contracts with particular companies. It knowingly touches upon numerous elements of the era, from manufactured romances between young talents to the rise of Communism in the film industry. There are also knowing winks at select genres and movies — as one example, a terrific song and dance number anchored by musical star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) brings to mind 1945's Anchors Aweigh, which featured that classic dance between Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse (even more amusing, Tatum's moves seem more reminiscent of Jerry's than of Gene's!).
There are a few chats centered on religious differences and rampant capitalism, but they're largely presented as asides, since the Coens are firmly focused on the laughs. In a sense, this picture lends credence to the generally ridiculous axiom of "too much of a good thing," since that's precisely what happens when so many savory plotlines and performances are packed into one film. Fiennes and Johansson are both riotously funny, and I would watch an entire film built around either one of their characters. The same goes for Ehrenreich and his singing cowboy — so annoying as the male lead in the YA dud Beautiful Creatures, Ehrenreich's absolutely ingratiating here, the latest example of a performer having to wait for the right role at the right time. But this is in essence Brolin's picture — it's his arc we follow throughout the story — and he's in fine form, navigating us through countless bits of hilarity. One of the high points is his last-minute meeting with a quartet of religious leaders, with the purpose of finding out whether or not they approve of the depiction of Christ in the script for Hail, Caesar! Invited solely to discuss the religious merits of the movie, one of the holy men nevertheless declares that he finds it "fakey" that a man could jump from one speeding chariot to another. Heaven help us, even the clerics are critics.