What’s it About?
A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.
(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
I’m a sucker for send up’s of the film industy, hollywood and the oft times insane, erratic, bombastic and zany machinations that it takes to get a movie done. Mind you, send ups of making TV shows and even Radio dramas have been done, but making movies, the goof old honest Hollywood way, is perhaps the most popular among cinephiles.
Films like Altman’s “The Player,” are pristine and timeless examples of how to make a creatively dynamic “behind the scenes” flick. Other directors, here and there, have attempted to cut a slice of that cake for viewers and serve it up with varying final results. Every once in a while, like say with, Bowfinger, Ed Wood, The Big Picture and Sunset Boulevard, the film-makers get it incredibly right.
“Hail, Caesar!” from those reliably quirky and eccentric picture makers, Joel and Ethan Coen (fargo, Blood Simple, The Huducker Proxy), misses the mark on a few levels, but it still winds up being an entertaining, but rather listless endeavor. It is fortunately held up by a good looking production, brisk editing and some decent, if uninspired at times, performances by a kick ass cast.
The film’s narrative bounces around a few troubling scenarios involving self absorbed lead actors, demanding starlets, hoods, pushy columnists, communists, bad actors, heavy handed directors and just about every dysfucntional Hollywood scheme, in bright and bombastic fashion. Here, the Coen brothers handle the dynamics well while not slippping into the somber aplomb of their other entry, “Barton Fink.”
Tossed into this mix, is the one person, Eddie Mannix, played with stoic appeal by Josh Brolin ( Men in Black III) who can valiantly attempt to reel it all in as the head of production, as well as the “Fixer,” of Capitol Pictures in Hollywood, USA. during the production of a huge budgeted, period costume drama about Jesus Christ, two extras (one being Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame, who is a welcome sight in such a short role) manage to roofie the lead actor of the Christ film, Baird Whitlock, played enthusiastically by George Clooney.
As he continually hesitates drinking from an actual golden goblet, which the extras have drugged, the Coens hilariously cut to and fro the two extras, one of which is actually playing a Lyre. Old Georgie boy passes out in the backlot, near his dressing room, and when the extras catch up with him, then we are off to the races.
Whitlock is delivered to a spacious and lavish house on the shore and finds himself in the company of a some goofy ex-Hollywood writers and communists, thinly disguised as a “Study group.” these wacky men all have an agenda which involves a ransom for Whitlock and payback from the corrupt Hollywood system, who they feel, have kept their piece of the pie. What is quite amusing is that Whitlock goes along with the whole affair and listens intently as they go on about their plans and political philosophies.
But Baird isn’t the only one having a bad day. Actor and Cowboy / Rodeo performer Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) finds himself pulled into a regal picture at warp speed and has the displeasure of being directed by the hoighty toighty Laurence Laurentz, portrayed with cheeky assurance by Ralph Fiennes. Poor Hobie, who is a charming but simple minded guy in manners, education and the ways of the world, cannot act his way out of a paper bag. He’s continously nervous around the set and Laurentz totally intimidates him. The “Were that it T’wer so simple” scene is a facetious moment which represents really well timed, verbal slapstick. So, this is another sticky situation that Eddie Mannix must “Fix” beside juggling the complaints and personal pregnancy troubles of a water ballet movie starlet, named DeeAnn Moran (Scarlett Johansson).
The Coens don’t stop there either, for Mannix, there is the religious guilt he carries because he cannot stop smoking and is lying to his wife about it. Then there is a dubious job offer extended to Eddie, from a shadowy man who represents Lockheed and likes to spill military and scientific secrets about H bombs. Not to mention that twin Hollywood gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are pressuring Eddie with running unsavory stories as they try to outdo eachother. To top all of that off, Hobie catches on to dance and musical star, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who is in cullusion with the same Communists, who have kept Whitlock happily detained at Gurney’s place.
“Hail, Caesar” works best when peering through that Coen microscope at the way the various productions and re-creations are put together, eventually going through various stages of production (Frances McDormand has a comical cameo here, as a chain smoking, unintelligible film cutter). They also re-create, gloriously, the way a Cecil B. DeMille type of tentpole production may have actually looked like. Also, Hobie’s stunt and song work on his westerns are hilariously staged and recreated and Ehrenreich is a hell of a sight to behold as the dim witted but loveable matinee movie star.
Moran’s subplot is quite un-interesting and a throwaway. If you blink, you may miss Jonah Hill, who is bland, rote and does really nothing but react to Moran’s advances. The Thessaly twins fare no better as Tilda Swinton, who appears to be having fun, just comes across aloof and unattractive. To her credit, the arc is fleshed out and her final scene with Brolin stands out. During dailies, while Mannix has a meeting, you can’t help but just laugh out loud at the numerous takes of Whitlock’s reactions to seeing Christ on the cross for the first time. One really funny moment in a film that is uneven throughout it’s sometimes gimmicky narrative.
When things quiet down for Mannix, (home life, little league and spanish tests) the movie sort of grinds down to a halt, perhaps in an attempt to show some disparities, and if that is the case, the Coens succeed. but one can’t help wonder if these alternate peeks into his life could have at least not induced a errant yawn. Who knows? All nit picking aside, The Coens do wrap things up neatly, Whitlock is saved by Hobie from the communists, who help Gurney (who by the finale ends up looking like a James Bond villain) escape in a pretty neat Submarine scene. As for just desserts, they lose the ransom and get their comeuppance for the kidnapping of their cash cow.
Once back and in his office, Mannix slaps Whitlock back into coherence and sends him on his way to try and deliver the best monologue he can muster. Mannix also makes a final decision, thanks to the local and wordy Priest, about Lockheed and all is right in the Capitol Pictures world. Rather abruptly too. The Coens deliver a film which the sum of it’s part are indeed better than the whole. It isn’t daring and it isn’t completely cohesive but has periodic moments of good ideas and chuckle inducing gags, which is not all bad.
“Hail, Caesar!” has enough mimicry, scorn, satire and caricature for 3 Coen movies, but it has a weird off kilter charm when sending up it’s material source. Honestly, some things click and some things fall flat, but do not blame the Coens for lack of trying. With the playfulness of the actors, the great sets, production designs and multiple ratios, the movie definitely gets points for looking good and poking some good old fashioned, though peculiar and distinctive, fun at the industry we sometimes love to hate and love again.
IF YOU LIVE IN THE ROCHESTER, NY AREA, COME DOWN TO THE LITTLE THEATRE TO SEE “HAIL, CAESAR!”