Friday, February 19, 2016

HAIL CAESAR! (2016)

Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Cohen


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. February 8, 2016 5:30PM


Like the idiosyncratic Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Cohen make films that distinctly reflect their own unique vision of the world. And also like the "Pulp Fiction" director, the brothers use classic film genres to weave their delightfully offbeat voice and style in to their cinema. They are probably best known for making sharp-edged comedies with dark undertones. Even their provocative dramas manage to find wicked humor in tragic or dangerous situations.

Their latest, "Hail Caesar!" is most certainly a comedy and pays loving homage to the golden age of Hollywood during the 1950's when the studios began to stage extravagant productions and seriously use glorious color to enhance their films. This was actually a desperate attempt to encourage audiences to leave their homes for entertainment due to the growing popularity of television. While the brothers perfectly recreate some magical moments inspired by the films of this era, the rest of the story involving salacious activities and commie screenwriters, while certainly reflective, is less engaging.

While his official title at Capitol Pictures may be "Head of Production", Eddie Mannix's (Josh Brolin) real job at the studio was as a "fixer". Loosely based on the real-life man who worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the deeply devout Mannix was responsible for keeping the scandalous behaviour of the studio's movie stars out of the press and making these problems go away.

Mannix has to deal with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the studio's bathing beauty, and her dilemma of finding herself unmarried and in the family way. Not confidently sure who the father might be, this tough-talking dame is nothing like her sweet screen image. He also has to calm director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) over being forced to use singing cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his latest drama. Not required to say much in his westerns, Doyle has plenty of good 'ole boy, Southern charm yet not much sophistication or acting abilities to be convincing in the role of an urban gentleman.

But Mannix's biggest problem is happening on the set of "Hail Caesar". The star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is preparing to shoot a scene dressed as a Roman solider when an extra slips a drug in a prop goblet that the actor drinks from. Whitlock is knocked-out cold and taken to a beach house in Malibu. When he awakens, his kidnappers are a collective of screenwriters that are supporters of the Communist Party who call themselves "The Future". They explain to Whitlock their philosophy, agenda and purpose of his abduction which all begins to sound reasonable to the actor.

Mannix receives a ransom note from The Future demanding $100,000 dollars for Whitlock's safe return. He comes up with the cash and places it in the sound stage of song & dance man Burt Gurney's (Channing Tatum) musical comedy. It doesn't end there and the seemingly slow-witted Doyle inadvertently gets involved in solving this abduction caper.

"Hail Caesar!" further explores some ideas from their 1991 film, "Barton Fink". Set about ten years earlier at the same movie studio, Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) was a successful Broadway playwright summoned to write for Hollywood. Once there, Fink suffers from writer's block due to the lack of inspiration in his new environment. While these two films couldn't be more different in structure and tone, each examines the arduous challenges of entertainment production and lack of respect for the writing process. While I'm sure the Coens find these themes endlessly fascinating, the appeal of "Caesar" will be limiting to someone not directly involved or very interested in the movie business.

What everyone will enjoy are the performances from this starry ensemble. Special mention should be made to Mr. Ehrenreich, the lesser known of the cast. The actor charms with a hilariously deadpan twang which makes people underestimate Doyle's steely resolve. There are brief appearances by Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and the incomparable Tilda Swinton, putting a funny spin on rival Hollywood gossip columnists wearing outrageously silly hats, that adds to the fun. We are also treated to some thrilling classic dance sequences. Ms Johansson dazzles in a Esther Williams-styled spectacle that features swimmers performing a synchronized water ballet. With a nod to the legendary Gene Kelly, Mr. Tatum impresses as a song & dance man, performing a sailors-on-leave musical tap number. These men sing about a lack of women, though they seem quite content in each other's company.

"Hail Caesar!" connects with bursts of zany, comedic energy, high-spirited performances and a vigorous re-creation of old Hollywood but this intensity is unable to be maintained throughout, burning out long before we reach the conclusion. Not nearly as coherent and far more chaotic than some of the Coen brothers' better efforts yet offers enough of their oddball charm and earnest high jinks to keep you fairly entertained.