Sunday, February 7, 2016

Twice in One Week?

Film: Hail, Caesar!
Format: Market Square Cinemas.

I like the Coen Brothers’ movies. I’m not a complete fanboy—I haven’t seen everything they’ve done and I haven’t liked everything I’ve seen, but I’m always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. My wife wanted to see Hail, Caesar! and last night both of the kids were out, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to go. Aside from the annoying people behind us who decided to comment frequently during the movie, it was a good night out. The people behind us reminded me of why I don’t go to the theater that often, though despite having gone twice in the same week.

Hail, Caesar! takes place across slightly more than a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production at Capitol Pictures during the later years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Mannix is a man under a great deal of stress, which causes him to go to confession just about every day. However, what he’s confessing seems to be the sort of moral transgressions that could wait for a Sunday—lying to his wife about sneaking a cigarette or two, for instance. On this particular day, Eddie is dealing with some truly interesting problems.

Of primary concern is the location of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently wrapping the filming in, well, “Hail, Caesar!,” a movie about the life of Christ told through the perspective of a Roman centurion. With just a few days left to complete this prestige picture (that is costing the studio a great deal of money), Whitlock has suddenly vanished. Unbeknownst to Eddie and his staff, Baird is in the hands of a group of communist scriptwriters who are holding him for ransom, since none of them have seen any of the real profits from the movies they’ve written.

That’s not all, of course. Eddie also has to deal with the current problems of Esther Williams-esque DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). DeeAnna has the image of being America’s pure and virginal sweetheart but is currently unmarried and pregnant. Eddie’s solution is to have her disappear for a few months after wrapping her current film, placing the baby in the custody of studio problem solver Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), and then having her adopt her own child. Additionally, prestige filmmaker Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) needs a star for his latest Broadway adaptation and is saddled with singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is fine with a lariat but doesn’t do so well when he has to speak. Throughout all of these problems Eddie is aided by his able secretary Natalie (Heather Goldenhersh), who somehow manages to keep things together for him.

Through all of this, Eddie Mannix is also dealing with a personal offer—he’s been offered a management position at Lockheed and a chance for a bigger paycheck and regular hours. It’s tempting, of course, and certainly would come with fewer insane problems.

Hail, Caesar! manages to create an insane film world with a memorable cast of characters (and for the movie fan, a truly stellar cast of actors). Including in various roles are Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-style song and dance man, Frances McDormand as a film editor who probably shouldn’t wear scarves, Alison Pill as Eddie Mannix’s wife, and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin gossip columnists who dress the same but dislike each other. There are also fun little nods to the era, my favorite being a Carmen Miranda-styled actress named Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), a great nod to Hitchcock. Other familiar faces in small roles include Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Christopher Lambert, Wayne Knight, Dolph Lundgren, and the velvet tones of Michael Gambon as the narrator.

The single best moment in the film is the dance number with Channing Tatum and a cast of sailors. It starts out as a solid musical number with some very well-choreographed scenes. The part where five men tap on tables while the tablecloths are pulled out from under them looks like something that could have absolutely been put in a classic MGM musical. And then the scene slowly becomes the most homoerotic musical number since Jane Russel’s turn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a slice of comedy perfection.

And that’s really the problem here. Hail, Caesar! has moments of brilliance and a lot of moments of good comedy, but it doesn’t feel cohesive. Many of the stories don’t have a great deal of resolution. We get the end to a couple of Eddie Mannix’s issues, but hardly all of them, and for a movie that wants to evoke the era, resolutions all around would seem to be the order of the day. Because of this, Hail, Caesar! ends up feeling episodic and disjointed, even if it is consistently funny.

It’s hard not to be a little disappointed here. I tend to hold the Coens to a pretty high standard, and what would be a pretty successful movie in the hands of another director (or directorial team) here is just kind of successful. I know they’re capable of better. Hail, Caesar! is worth a watch, but it comes across as comedy moments in search of a cohesive story.

A final note—I commented to my wife a bit after the movie that it seemed more than anything like the Coens were trying to do a Wes Anderson movie. It has that sort of vibe to it. Joel and Ethan—I know you’re not reading this, but please leave Wes Anderson movies to Wes Anderson. I accept that his penchant for attracting huge, talented casts is worth duplicating, but you guys are good at what you’re good at, and Anderson is good at what he does. Stick to what you do well; leave Wes Anderson’s films to Wes Anderson.

Why to watch Hail, Caesar!: The Coens do comedy well.
Why not to watch: It’s a second-tier Coen comedy.

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