HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
Review by Ana Ribeiro
Before going to the movies last night, I had a short chat with our literature columnist, Christijan, who is also a film enthusiast. I invited him to come watch Hail, Caesar! with me and some other people, but he declined, citing the mixed reviews and mixed record of the Coen Brothers’ films in terms of quality. Although I’d have to agree with Christijan, I also have to say that what I really like about the directors of Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Are Thou?, and Burn After Reading (among other renowned titles) is how eclectic and unpredictable they can be in their thematic choices. The actors cast as protagonists in these films seemed to be equally versatile.
Generally speaking, I thought it didn’t quite work out with the comedy Hail, Caesar! The backdrop of the movie, Hollywood in the 1950 suffering crisis and “peril,” surely offered a lot of potential, but the plot lacked substance, conflict and a climax. The movie’s saving grace are its cast (a joy to watch even when not on-point), choreography and cinematography. For one thing, I wish the criticism of capitalism in the movie would have been more deeply explored. Instead, the use of the “Communism in Hollywood” theme ended up being almost entirely superfluous. Also, the trailer gave me the wrong impression of what the film is about, as the “movie within the movie” being shot turned out to be a very small part of the whole.
The trailer had also led me to believe George Clooney (playing epic film star Baird Whitlock) and Scarlett Johansson (playing aquatic film star DeeAnna Moran) – neither of whom I consider great actors – would have a bigger part in the movie than they actually did. Perhaps it was a strategy used to draw a larger audience since they are more widely known than the actual protagonist, Josh Brolin, whose name is nevertheless being increasingly established as a favorite of the Coen Brothers. In Hail, Caesar!, Brolin is the perfect cast as the surprisingly almost-ethical, and faithful to boot, production head of a film studio in 1951. The U.S. film industry at the time is struggling amid the growing appeal of television and the tightening grip of the Cold War and Red Scare. There is also the relentless attack of rival gossip columnists, here portrayed by the acting chameleon Tilda Swinton, effortlessly hilarious as twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Although fictional, her character mirrors real-life icons of the era, as many of the characters in the movie.
Brolin’s Eddie Mannix gives literal meaning to the phrase “slapping sense into somebody” and specializes in “putting out fires” (not literally) to ensure the smooth operation of Capitol Pictures. On a daily basis (and under chronic sleep deprivation), he has to deal with impending scandals and the trouble that the studio’s actors cause for themselves. This includes the kidnapping of Clooney’s character, the star of an epic set in ancient Rome at a critical point in the film shoot, and the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Johansson’s character. Brolin’s understated performance contrasts with the caricature-like portrayals of Clooney, Johansson and Channing Tatum, although I must confess I fell in love with the tap-dancing of Tatum’s character, Burt Gurney. The latter is supposed to be a version of Gene Kelly.
I am also sweet on the singing-cowboy-turned-dramatic-actor Hobie Doyle, played excellently by the young Alden Ehrenreich. He has already worked with great directors within a short time, and I hope and expect we will see great things from him as his career develops.
In short, Hail, Caesar! is worth watching for its entertainment value, colorful eye-catching cinematography and musical-style segments, as well as some notable acting turns. Watch out for a few prominent cameos not mentioned here. The movie does, however, lack the smarts and dark humor of remarkable past films the Coen Brothers are all so famous for.
Playing in Leipzig this movie week: