Directed by Coen Brothers
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG-13, for some suggestive content and smoking
1 hr. 46 min.
You shush the popcorn-munchers, sit up and pay attention at a movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, lest you miss an important reference, amusing turn of phrase or a bit of symbolism that fans will be chewing on for years to come. The Coen Brothers created enduring characters in The Big Lebowski and Fargo, reinterpreted True Grit and won an Oscar for No Country for Old Men. They’ve struck again and hit a bulls-eye with Hail, Caesar!, the most entertaining film of 2016 so far.
The subject of this latest masterpiece is Hollywood, circa 1951, land of secrets and solicitude, in Technicolor and black and white, accurately re-created and hilariously spoofed. As producers, writers and directors, the Coens have their usual field day sending up the studios, movies and mores of mid-20th-century Tinseltown, as they did in 1991’s Barton Fink. Unlike that film, Hail, Caesar! is laced with bright, uproarious one-liners and playfulness. To drop the name of another Coen classic, O Brother, Where Art Thou, the goal here is art, with eventual box office earnings as a very pleasant result.
The stellar ensemble cast of Coen favorites is led by Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio head with a never-ending number of fires to put out. Mustachioed and in period costume, Brolin’s Mannix looks and sounds like the late Dennis Farina. It works, as he goes about handling the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney in cheeky form as the doltish star of a biblical epic). Mannix has to keep this “on the Q.T.” (to use the parlance of the era) while dodging the entreaties of twin gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton. Imagine if Dear Abby and Ann Landers had channeled Hedda Hopper. Coen fans live for this kind of stuff.
While dealing with Baird’s strange abduction (look for Wayne Knight, Newman of Seinfeld fame, in an absurd cameo), Mannix juggles trouble on the sets of several movies: a lavish aquatic production (with Scarlett Johansson as the anti-Esther Williams); a sailor musical with a dance routine straight out of Anchors Aweigh; and a drama starring a cowpoke (Alden Ehrenreich) trying to move away from westerns. This last is directed by Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), an auteur in the John Gielgud mold — all low-key yet outrageous. Ehrenreich’s work as the inept singing cowboy is a revelation.
The clever writing in a Coen Brothers film, the attention to detail, the flawless editing and cinematography, are never surprising. From the references to Carmen Miranda to a pack of Viceroy filter cigarettes openly displayed on a restaurant table, Hail, Caesar! gives you a lot to pay attention to while chuckling. The objective of satire is to shine a light on a subject, and the radiance here is bright, from trumped-up Hollywood romances of the time to the political turmoil, both sexual and partisan.
This film’s coup de grace, though, is its recreation of old film genres. Devotees of Turner Classic Movies will gleefully point out that the aquatic scenes are straight out of Busby Berkeley, and Channing Tatum’s dancing sailor could have learned his steps directly from Gene Kelly or Jimmy Cagney. Whether it’s slackers, North Dakota, adapting Homer for the 1930s, or this very funny Hollywood takeoff, Joel and Ethan Coen get it right every time.
Hail, Caesar! is in theaters while Trumbo is honored with Oscar nominations. One film a satire, the other a biopic, set in the same era. One that makes you laugh, the other a tale of triumph over blacklisting. Coincidence? The Coens may not admit to planning it this way, but there is always message and method to their madness. And entertainment, from title card to closing credits.