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Vintage Hollywood Lite: Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney-Hail Caeser-680       Joel and Ethan Coen are as unpredictable as they are
prolific. We never know what to expect from them—a downbeat drama, a
lighthearted period piece, an existential musing—but we know it will be
original and offbeat. And we know the supporting cast will be filled with odd
and unusual faces, almost reminiscent of Federico Fellini.

       Hail,
Caesar!
is a lark, an extended riff on the peccadilloes and politics of Old
Hollywood. Josh Brolin plays a studio executive named Eddie Mannix, who was a
real person (portrayed by Bob Hoskins in Hollywoodland),
but almost everyone and everything else in the film is a product of the Coens’
fertile imagination.  

         In real life,
Mannix worked for MGM and was known as a "fixer" who had solid
connections with the LAPD and influential people around town. He could cover up
a star’s indiscretions or negotiate with local politicians and never break a
sweat. In this film, his hard-working secretary tries to keep up with him as he
strides around the studio lot and figures out which problem or mini-crisis
demands his immediate attention. Josh Brolin winds up as a kind of straight-man
alongside the nuttier, more colorful characters in this circus.

Josh Brolin-Hail Caeser-680

         George Clooney
plays one of the studio’s biggest stars who, while shooting a Biblical epic, is
abducted by a couple of stooges who are working for a Communist cell. This
motley crew of malcontents has the use of a posh Malibu beach house, but find
no irony or hypocrisy in the situation. Meanwhile, Clooney’s apolitical
character is actually intrigued by their rhetoric and cerebral passion.

         This is one of
several story threads that enable the Coens to have fun with the zeitgeist of the
early 1950s. Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams-inspired aquatic star with a foul mouth and a New York accent. Tilda
Swinton plays twin sisters who write rival gossip columns and don’t hesitate to
throw their weight around. Another, seemingly unrelated, subplot involves a
wide-eyed cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) who is cast in a drawing-room drama for
which he is spectacularly ill-suited. This threatens to drive his European
director (Ralph Fiennes) crazy.
Scarlett Johansson-Hail Caeser-680         Then there is a
boyish musical star played by Channing Tatum, who performs a delightful Gene
Kelly-ish song-and-dance number called “No Dames!” (written by Henry Krieger and
Willie Reale and choreographed by Chris Gattelli) that belies his true
personality. There is also a wild, non-sequitur moment involving Frances
McDormand (the star of Fargo and the
real-life wife of Joel Coen) that I can’t spoil—but won’t soon forget.

         All of this is
mildly amusing and carried out with panache by an expert team of costume and
production designers… but it doesn’t add up to much. Josh Brolin has served
the Coens well in No Country for Old Men and True Grit, and he’s completely convincing
here as the resourceful company man who wonders if his talents could be put to
better use elsewhere.

         The minor
doodlings of Joel and Ethan Coen can be more interesting and provocative than
other filmmakers’ major efforts… but even so, Hail, Caesar! promises more than it delivers. Barton Fink may have run off the rails at a certain point but it
captured more of Old Hollywood and its ways than this stylish piece of fluff.
Film buffs will enjoy taking a time-trip to the past, brought to life with such
a keen eye for detail, but I wish this screenplay were more cohesive.

      My consolation: there will be
another Coen Brothers movie coming down the road sometime soon. 

13 comments

  1. Jeffrey says:

    Mr. Maltin’s flimsy criticism of this film suggests to me that his review is less about bona dife evaluation than perhaps his own predisposition doing the talking. And therefore, I can only conclude that this review is not helpful.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Typo correction: bona fide evaluation.

  3. Kevin Barry says:

    Hail, Caesar is an elaborate dud. The Coen Brothers worked so hard to be smart, they forgot to be funny, and most of the laughs are in the trailer. Hollywood studio life in the fifties is painstakingly recreated and every actor works like a dynamo, but the poorly structured picture is flat and refuses to come to life. It’s all fancy touches, lots of icing and little cake. I kept thinking that it looked like Who Framed Roger Rabbit without the animation.

  4. CC says:

    Jeffrey’s flimsy criticism of Mr. Maltin’s astute criticism suggests to me that his comment is less about bona dife evaluation than perhaps his own predisposition to hear himself talk. And therefore, I can only conclude that this moron is not helpful.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    You say astute. I say disengaged.

  6. Lucius P Frankenstein says:

    It sounds like Jeffrey has his panties in a bunch again! How dare somebody not have exactly the same opinion of a film than he does? Shocking!

  7. Sammy says:

    How dare somebody have a different opinion on a film than Jeffrey? They clearly didn’t get it…whatever IT was!

  8. Roger Egbert says:

    How dare somebody have a different opinion of a film than Jeffrey? I’m shocked!

  9. Lee says:

    Whatever the case, I already know that "Hail, Caesar!" will be better than "Inside Llewyn Davis". That movie had no plot and completely ignored the politics of the folk movement.

  10. Carl LaFong says:

    Loved it. Even lesser Coen Bros. efforts are better than top-drawer almost anyone else. The period detail and art direction are to die for. May be a little too "Inside Baseball" for casual viewers (there are more Hollywood in-jokes than I could count), so it may have some trouble finding its audience. I recommend it.

  11. Sedgewick P Hunsacker says:

    How dare anybody have a different opinion on a film than Jeffrey? I’m shocked!

  12. mike schlesinger says:

    In TRUMBO (with which this will make a swell double feature down the line), Trumbo directly addresses the seeming hypocrisy of a Communist living like royalty. The way he justifies it in his mind is one of that film’s countless droll moments. And in any event, a 60% Coen Brothers picture has to be better than a 100% Michael Bay epic.

  13. Karen says:

    Ok, it was an elaborate dud, but it was fun on a few levels. I loved the "insider" touches: the fact that Mannix and Schenck were real people in the industry, the riotous scene where a film editor is splicing what is surely nitrate based film with a cigarette dangling haphazardly from her lips, the spot-on representation of the nerdy gaggle of Communist writers whose kidnap scheme makes up the bulk of the movie’s plot. The movie is a piece of fluff, but fun and enjoyable for what it is. And honestly, George Clooney’s thighs in that gladiator costume is somewhat of a saving grace. 🙂

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