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HAIL, CAESAR! (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenrich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
Review by Gilbert Seah
The Coen Brothers remain in top form. They etch out a film almost annually, with almost each one a critical hit. Their films are an annual event many moviegoers now look forward to. Their best films include TRUE GRIT, FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN AFTER READING, and all their films share the Brother’s keen sense of humour. HAIL, CAESAR! like BURN AFTER READING is pure comedy and this one is a worthy tribute to the Hollywood dream-making machine. It has the feel of a farce yet, it total respects the Hollywood studio system, for all its faults and errors.
The lead character is a Hollywood studio fixer by the name of Mannix, subtly portrayed by Josh Brolin, in the kind of role he has mastered. He is a dead serious character you do not want to mess around with. Or you will get slapped around like his main star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) did, before being told to then go out and act like a star. The film begins with Mannix in a confessional box, pouring his heart out to the priest. Mannix is shown to be a decent man, one that respects other human beings, despite their faults and one who loves his wife and kids. He is the backbone of America and the one that make sense in the Coen film. Which is required – or all else will go to nought and the film degenerates into nonsense. Of all the sins confessed, the one that affects him the most is his cigarette smoking. He has promised his wife (Alison Pill) to cut down and is unable to do so. The plot generally follows Mannix around while things in the Studio fall apart, while being offered a smoke most of the time. Mannix fixes things, hilariously yet credibly, and that is the basic premise of HAIL, CAESAR! While all these are going on, he is wooed for a better paying, better hours job at Lockheed Incorporated.
The things that can go wrong provide most of the satire and entertainment. A famous actress, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and her image is about to be ruined. A famous cowboy actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is unable to utter his lines to the satisfaction of his director Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Tabloid columnist sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton wearing different hats) want a scoop trying to dig in dirt about star Whitlock. The most jarring problem is Whitlock being kidnapped by a groups of disgruntled scriptwriters who want their far share of the dough. Mannix has to sort them all out.
All these problems provide ample opportunity for hilarity – Coen Brothers style. And they keep the laughs coming with twists in the story as they know best. The brains behind kidnapping turns out to be communist Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).
The Brothers play plenty of homage to old classics. There is a spectacular swimming Busby Berkley swimming number, Esther Williams style as in MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, a one-take musical gay-type musical number with no dames to the tune of “No Dames”with nods to ANCHORS AWEIGH and Rogers and Hammerstein’s song “There is Nothing like a Dame” from SOUTH PACIFIC and scenes that could be taken right out of William Wyler’s BEN-HUR, just to name a few.
The Brothers have also assembled quite the impressive all-star cast, though some on the list only appear for a few minutes in a scene or two. The Jonah Hill character seems present just to utter the line “It’s all part of the job, Miss.” Fiennes and Johansson are only present for two scenes while Frances McDormand has only one as a chain-smoking editor who gets chokes by the film reel in the editing room. For whatever they do, they leave the audience wanting for more. Relative newcomer Ehrenreich steals the show as the cute cowboy who eventually helps Mannix instead of the other way around.
Great directors have made films about the passion in the making of movies. Fellini had 81/2, Truffaut LA NUIT AMERICAINE, Almodovar BAD EDUCATION and the Coen Brothers HAIL, CASEAR!. Everything comes clear as to what the Coens are up to by the end reel. There are elements that don’t work that well or are overdone, but or the most part HAIL, CAESAR! is quite the movie, especially for the moviebuff. HAIL, CAESAR is a minor classic but a major delight! I would see it again.
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