Monday, February 15, 2016
It's about Old Hollywood but it's also something of Old Hollywood itself.
The film comes with a certain appealing, unassuming modesty that might make it seem minor in the Coen canon but it is far from minor - not with its fabulous A-list cast or the refreshingly original idea behind it.
It just feels that way.
"Hail, Caesar!," set at Capitol Studios in the late 1940s or early '50s, is about a "fixer" named Eddie Mannix - a company man who specializes in damage control before that expression was coined. It is Eddie's job to make sure that one of the studio's top male actors is seen at a premiere with a beautiful woman, preferably an actress also on the payroll, and to orchestrate the adoption of a baby by one of Capitol's female superstars.
Here's the deal: The baby is hers, see, but it was born out of wedlock. Hence, the need to make it all look legitimate and, well, wholesome.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie and he receives top billing, which is more than deserved. The fact is, the cast is listed in alphabetical order, but still, Brolin is the inarguable star of the Coens' stellar ensemble.
Scarlett Johansson is the unwed mother in a jam - the studio's coarse star of innocuous water musicals. And there's George Clooney as Capitol's biggest star, one with many questionable habits, and Channing Tatum as a song-and-dance man who's more than he seems, and Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy of limited talent, and Frances McDormand as a no-nonsense film editor (ever hidden in a small, dark, smoke-filled editing room), and Jonah Hill as one of Capitol's in-house attorneys (handling the swimming star's adoption, which is creatively convoluted, of course), and Ralph Fiennes, witty as a fussy director named Lawrence Laurentz.
They all make terrific company.
But it's the peripheral stuff that makes "Hail, Caesar!" so irresistible, particularly Tilda Swinton, game as the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both competitive and both deliciously venomous.
And then there's Clooney's esoteric throwaway reference to the film director Norman Taurog, whose whopping 183 credits can be seen here.
Any film that honors the under-appreciated Norman Taurog (Cary Grant's "Room for One More," "Boys Town," "Words and Music" and countless Martin & Lewis and Elvis films) is aces with me. Clooney's invoking of Taurog's name reminded me of the moment in Phil Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (which also featured Josh Brolin) when Serena Scott Thomas as Beverly Hills matron Sloane Wolfmann comments that the dramatic lighting in her her manse was "designed by Jimmy Wong Howe."
Note in Passing: Christophe Lambert plays the German director of the sailor musical starring Channing Tatum in "Hail, Caesar!" and shares a scene with Josh Brolin - something of a clever inside joke. Get the connection? Both men have been married to Diane Lane.