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Film Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen craft yet another sparkling comedy in Hail, Caesar!. The film stars a cast that includes Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, and frequent Coen-collaborator George Clooney. Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a film studio fixer (based on a real-life person of the same name) from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who spends all his waking hours dealing with the egos, scandals, and deadlines brewing in the machine-like world of movie-making. Chasing down troubled actors, managing careers, fending off the press, and making sure everything runs smoothly from department to department, Eddie also has to deal with the recent kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of Capitol Pictures’ latest and greatest epic, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. Personally, Eddie is also bogged down with Catholic guilt over his smoking habit and at a career crossroads when he receives a lucrative job offer that would take him away from the chaos of Hollywood. Luckily, Eddie is really good at his job.

Hail, Caesar! offers a rosy, nostalgic, crash course of Hollywood circa 1950s, both in front and behind the camera, while also skewering the studio system for satirical laughs. Movie sequences evoking old-timey song-and-dance numbers, lasso-slinging cowboy Westerns, sweeping romantic dramas, and large-scale historical epics pay homage to the kinds of movies of the time (Ben-Hur and Million Dollar Mermaid to name a few). The brilliantly named director Laurence Laurentz, played by Fiennes, brings in the European cinema element but also winks at the history of closeted gays in Hollywood. Eddie, of course, represents the omnipotent and totalitarian studio system itself, where everything and everyone (including actors) were completely owned by the studio heads. He exercises his power when he tells pregnant actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) that she must get married again for PR reasons and he sets up the studio’s next star by pushing the physically talented, singing-cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) into stilted high-brow dramas and having him bring a pretty young starlet to a film premiere in order to drum up tabloid gossip. For the most part, everyone acquiesces out of self-interest or fear but the film also has fun with the other side of history, namely the panic that the majority of Hollywood had over Communism.

Goofy Baird finds out early on that he has been kidnapped by a coalition of Communist scriptwriters, who gradually bring him around to their all-encompassing ideology. These elderly, pipe-smoking, bickering intellectuals represent a parody of the Communist conspiracy that seemed to exist in the minds of the public at the time. And in a truly hilarious scene where Eddie consults with four different religious heads over the potential for controversy in the script of Hail, Caesar!, the Coens dabble gleefully with theological debates among Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant beliefs (admittedly this has very little to do with Hollywood history but its so enjoyably Coen-esque).

All the actors are in excellent form, particularly breakout star Ehrenreich. The material doesn’t quite give enough room for Clooney to dominate (and he is usually so good in Coen comedies) nor does it offer much complex choreography for Tatum (who we all know is capable of a lot more than a simplistic song-and-dance number), but it is still plenty entertaining and hilarious. DP Roger Deakins does get to flex his filmmaking muscles to recapture the aesthetic of yesteryear so Hail, Caesar! technically looks great. Yet, the script falls just short of the top of the Coen catalogue.

Rating: 4 out of 5 belted attaché cases

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