Monday, February 29, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Alternate Title:  That's Entertainment!!! (Volume XVIII)

One sentence synopsis:    A 1950s studio boss must track down the kidnapped star of his biggest production of the year, while simultaneously dealing with a series of other crises afflicting multiple movies.

Things Havoc liked:This project began with the Coen Brothers, many years ago at a western by the name of True Grit. Though it was the first film I ever reviewed on this project, it was hardly the first Coen Brothers movie I've seen, as they've been entertaining me and mine since the early 90s with everything from Fargo to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, and The Hudsucker Proxy (shut up, I liked that one). With a pedigree like that, a new Coen Brothers film is the sort of thing that instantaneously lights up my movie radar, and the fact that it was a classic ode to Hollywood of old, starring approximately half of the actors in the world only made it more appealing. I know that not all of you are as obsessive about watching movies as I am, but for a cinephile like myself, this was like the promise of power and riches. I was in.

It is 1951, the golden age of Hollywood, and Eddie Mannix, played by the imperturbable Josh Brolin, is the head of production at Capitol Pictures, a massive MGM/Warner Bros/Universal-scale motion picture studio simultaneously working on dozens of different projects. It is Mannix' job to play the fixer, to resolve the ten thousand and one impediments that arise each day at the various location or backlot shoots, and somehow keep the stars and directors of Capitol's various movies happy, alive, and out of the press, not necessarily in that order. Hollywood is, and always has been, an insane place, and Brolin plays the character like a devoted worshiper at the altar of movie-making, mugging for the camera with a whole series of fifties-style "Good gravy, what will the boss say when he hears about this?!" over-readings, which is exactly the right choice for a movie this stylized. I've not always admired Brolin's work, but he's excellent as the perpetually frazzled lead in this, a romantic who plainly worships the magic of Hollywood, even as he dives regularly into the seamier sides of it.

Nor is Brolin alone here, for the Coen's have assembled a murderer's row of excellent actors to cast in an old-fashioned Hollywood romp. Front and center is George Clooney, playing a sendup to Kirk Douglas, a massive Hollywood superstar of great fame and few brains, the star of the tentpole film "Hail, Caesar!", a Romano-biblical epic in the style of Ben Hur. Clooney's character is a buffoon famous for being a famous actor, but nails the role perfectly, both in the overacting he indulges in on set, and the easily-led, shallow thoughts he leads with when off it. The plot of the film, such as it is, concerns Clooney being kidnapped by a semi-inept gang of Communist screenwriters, who indulge in pointless garbled debates concerning arcane points of Marxist dialectic, the sorts of things that sound profound and deep to people who can't parse together the fact that they are all talking through their hats. Meanwhile, back at the studio, a handful of other subplots are boiling over, including Ralph Fiennes, playing a David-Lean style veteran British director saddled with Alden Ehrenreich, a Gene-Autry-style singing cowboy whom the studios are trying to push forward as a movie star despite the fact that the film he's being pushed into is a costume drama and the fact that he can't act at all. There's also Scarlett Johanssen, doing a synchronized swimming send-up to Esther Williams, swimming gracefully in a fountained pool dressed like a mermaid before climbing out of the water and complaining about her "fish-ass". There is Christopher Lambert, doing a ludicrous send-up to Werner Herzog, a director who clearly has no idea what the studio boss is talking about when he storms onto the set, but feels that everything can be resolved with a hug and a pre-emptory command to go. There is Clancy Brown, doing... well Clancy Brown, by and large (I require nothing more than this), and best (and most surprising) of all, there is none other than Channing Tatum, who gets an entirely pointless extended song-and-dance number clearly inspired by South Pacific or similar musicals, in which he tries to turn himself into Gene Kelly, singing, dancing, and even tap dancing for no reason other than the fact that it's the 50s, and Hollywood believed this sort of thing would sell. The purpose of these sequences really isn't to service the plot, by and large, it's to simply showcase the glitz and glamour of a romantic period in Hollywood history, if only because we're now far enough away from it that we forget the truly awful dreck that came out amidst the Cleopatras and Sierra Madres.

And that's... more or less all there is to Hail, Caesar, an excuse for the Coen brothers to assemble a cast and have fun with them. Oh Brother Where Art Thou was no more than this after all, and Hail, Caesar has similarly absurd showcase moments that make little sense when sat down and pondered over, but seem organic from within the movie. An extended sequence wherein Channing Tatum is rowed out to sea to board a submarine, for instance, has nothing really to do with anything, save as an excuse for Tatum to mug for the camera shamelessly as he leaps dramatically for the railing and tosses his hair back to deliver a parting quip in the best tradition of a Golden Age setpiece. There's a slow-burn sequence of great length and determination as Ralph Fiennes tries desperately to find a line that Ehrenreich is capable of delivering reasonably, and the Coens even get everyone's favorite ubiquitous actress, Tilda Swinton, to play identical twin gossip columnists, trying to out-scoop one another for scandal stories for their respective tabloids, all while screaming that "the people deserve to know the truth!" If this is the kind of thing that you go to the movies to see, then Hail, Caesar delivers just that.

Things Havoc disliked: If, on the other hand, you go to the movies looking for things like plot, characters, or story, then you're in a bit more trouble.

The Coen Brothers have always made weird, quirky films, but those films usually had a point to them, even if that point was simply weird quirkiness (The Big Lebowski comes to mind). They had plots, of greater or lesser importance, and stories, and characters that populated them and were showcased to us by virtue of living in Coen-Brothers-world. But Hail, Caesar, to its detriment, has none of those things, no characters beyond the thinnest veneers, no plot to speak of, no surprises or twists beyond the most rudimentary of tactics, nothing, really, except the glamour of early Hollywood, and even for the Coens, that is not enough.

Consider Brolin, who is laden with a boring subplot concerning a job offer he is being pitched by Lockheed-Martin, for a position that pays extravagantly well, necessitates none of the crazy hours or absurd wrangling that his current position involves, and would reward him after ten years with sufficient stock and bonuses to retire for the rest of his life. And yet can he really turn his back on the crazy-but-glamorous world of movie-making with all its insane and loveable characters? Well I've got a better question, does anyone really give a damn? Brolin certainly doesn't, as he never seems more than slightly perturbed by the kidnapping, terrorism, and McCarthyesque flirtations with Communism that his actors and directors are up to. Without a sense of why he would take the job, why would we ever consider the possibility that he might take it to be a compelling one? After all, it's not like he's currently in a position lacking in money, power, or interest.

But then that's a minor issue compared to everything else. It may sound like there's a plot to this movie, with kidnappings, ransom demands, and the Communist threat, but that's all me trying to pull the movie together into some semblance of order. In reality, none of this amounts to anything, not the kidnapping, not the communists, not anything at all. Half the cast seems to have joined into the movie on a dare, and not because there was anything for them to do, including Johanssen, who gets one scene of any interest, and even that of no consequence, before falling for another character off-screen in a manner that conveniently absolves the film of any need to put her before us again. Jonah Hill, who I usually like, is in the movie for about thirty seconds and contributes nothing to it, and the same applies to Coen Brothers' regular Francis McDormand, who I don't recall even getting a single line of dialogue and who seems to have been placed in the movie for the purposes of a slapstick gag. This isn't cameo casting, or a stunt performance like Channing Tatum's from This is the End. Even seemingly-major characters like Ehrenreich or Swinton really have no purpose in the film. They exist, appear, say lines, and are gone. I've seen every Coen Brothers movie there is, and they do tend towards having weird characters for the hell of it, but in those movies, the characters in question exist to throw light on the world or the other characters that inhabit it. These characters have nothing to show us, and show us nothing for the runtime of the movie, before it finally ends, with nothing having happened, and nothing being resolved.

Final thoughts:    Hail, Caesar! is not a bad movie. It's not a particularly good movie either though, and when it comes to these directors and this cast, not being particularly good is damning enough. I am and remain a great fan of the Coens', and the fine movies they have given to us, such as No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, True Grit, and many others besides. As Roger Ebert used to say, I cite these fine films as an antidote to this one, a movie that came to be on a marketing sheet and never properly evolved from there, and one that proves conclusively that a handful of scenes, even when directed by great artists and performed by great actors, do not a movie make.

I have seen far worse movies over the course of this project than Hail, Caesar! But few had this pedigree and this potential, and did this little with them. One can only hope that the Coens remember what it is to make a movie in the near future, at which point we can put this minor misstep behind us, where it belongs.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  No Pickles.

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