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Vintage Hollywood Lite: Hail, Caesar!

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

Photo by Alison Rosa – Courtesy of Universal Studios

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

Courtesy of Universal Studios

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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