Monday, February 15, 2016

hail, coens!

"Hail, Caesar!," from the ever-inventive Joel and Ethan Coen, is an essentially pointless but hugely entertaining romp, but its pointlessness is the very quality that makes it so precious and necessary.  It's an affable reminder of a time when every movie didn't have to be "big," or "important" or "artistic" or "Box-Office Gold."  A movie simply had to be.

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.


elise said...

one of the cleverest movies in years. I could have watched a 10 hour version

Scott said...

The year is new, but I can't think of any comedy that will top it. "How to Be Single"? Nah. "Zoolander 2"? The original "Zoolander" wasn't that funny, a one-joke comedy. But maybe "Hail, Caesar!" is too "inside" for the average moviegoer to "get."

joe a. said...

This is the only film that I've seen in ages that I wanted to sit through again, back-to-back. Minor, it ain't!

Steven R. said...

I agree with Scott and will go a step further. "Hail, Caesar!" may be too good for the American moviegoing public. Let them lap up "Zoolander 2" and its ilk.

Sheila said...

Love the Diane Lane connection to the movie. A wild bit of trivia. It hadn't occured to me when I saw the film and I could barely recognize Lambert!

Brian Lucas said...

Joe- You forgot to mention the Coens' reference to Carlotta Valdez, the character mentioned in Hitchcock's "Vertigo"! That the name of Carmen Miranda-style actress taken to a movie premiere by the singing cowboy. Another nifty touch!

joe baltake said...

Brian. Thanks. I've a hunch that we'll keep discovering other amusing film-related nuggets in "Hail, Caesar!"

Delson said...

I love your stuff. Keep it coming.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see this, especially after seeing Trumbo. Who'd have believed we'd get two back to back movies set in 40s/50s Hollywood. After Trumbo I'm caught up in the Hollywood Black List. And I intend to stand up for the King Brothers who are described in Trumbo as Z list producers - who just happened to hire Dalton Trumbo to write GUN CRAZY. I'm trying to find out how many films Trumbo wrote for them.