Thursday, March 10, 2016

Would That It Were So Simple

Year: 2016
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An apology for the delay in getting this review out for the new Coen brothers venture Hail, Caesar!. Incidentally, I started reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar around the same time I watched it and held back on the off chance that the play would allow me more insight into the film. It didn’t. My ulterior motive was that maybe the extra time would allow me to fully sort out my complex and twisted feelings about the film. It didn’t. So now here we are, a little too late and with nothing to show for it.

So it goes.

In Hail, Caesar! Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer in the 1950’s, keeping the raucous stars out of trouble and – more importantly – out of the newspapers. While scandals and drama erupt from all corners – pregnant Brooklyn nymphette DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), snooping twin journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), uptight British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), down-home Western star turned leading man Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and charming, some might say magical, musical star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) – he must balance his work, his Catholic morals, and an intriguing new job offer.

But first he must find Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, who has just been kidnapped and held for ransom by the enigmatic conglomerate The Future.

I know that was a short description, but there is somehow both more and less pot in Hail, Caesar! than I described, so I figured I found a happy medium.

What stands out about Hail, Caesar! (other than the fact that it sends my computer’s grammar checker into a sputtering rage) is that it utterly defies classification. It’s alternately a screwball comedy, a throwback musical, a crisis of faith story, a satirical economic treatise, and a pastiche of Old Hollywood, sometimes all at once. Some of these elements are much better than others, though the vast majority of them are geared toward the funnier end of the spectrum. Which is good news because Hail, Caesar! is at its strongest when it’s fishing for laughs.

There are some truly amazing comedy moments in Hail, Caesar!, scenes that allow a talented cast to obliterate their comfort zones in order to achieve something truly magnificent. Tilda Swinton excels, grounding a cartoonish concept in deliriously silly reality (and between this and Trainwreck, she really ought to consider making the leap to comedy full time), Ralph Fiennes gets a rare opportunity to show his lighter side, exquisitely maneuvering through an uproarious Abbot and Costello homage, and “newcomer” Alden Ehrenreich (critics like to pretend he wasn’t in Beautiful Creatures) deftly navigates his scenes with a  dopey incalculable charm. Ehrenreich handily makes a bigger impression than megastar George Clooney or Josh Brolin, though to be fair they are saddled with two of the dullest characters in the script.

Also, he’s purdy.

The second greatest strength of Hail, Caesar! is its two original musical numbers, which perfectly recreate and comment on the filmmaking of the 1950’s. The swimming pool number featuring Scarlett Johansson is the lesser of the two, though it features impeccable costume design. I don’t know why I seem to have a physical inability to appreciate swim-dance sequences (Miss Piggy’s in The Great Muppet Caper similarly vexed me), but a scene I have absolutely no reservations about is Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing sailor number “No Dames.”

In addition to being the flamboyant, homo-erotic spectacle that has charmed many reviewers, it’s a downright perfect dance routine. It’s a stunning, delightful number that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gene Kelly environment, utilizing every last element of its seaside pub setting with gusto. Like, it’s funny or whatever, but its brilliant choreography should not be sidelined by its subtext. It’s a glorious, sparkling diamond in the crown of Hail, Caesar!’s comedy.

And then of course, everything falls apart. Hail, Caesar! is, from its opening frame, an exceedingly scatterbrained motion picture, but at sometime around the point that Frances McDormand teleports into the film for about thirty seconds to indulge in a  spot of harebrained physical comedy, the movie’s incohesiveness begins to set in like a rot. The film’s characters (especially McDormand and Jonah Hill’s Joseph Silverman) are but vapors, haphazardly colliding with the plot at random intervals and disappearing for huge chunks of time, sometimes never appearing again, swallowed by the ether. Plot points, story threads and themes similarly circulate, bobbing up and down in the overcrowded stew.

Let's take another quick look, shall we?

However towering the film’s comedic highs are (including a boardroom religious debate that’s downright untouchable), they’re too precarious to maintain, sending it tumbling down again and again. Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens indulging in cinematic gluttony and choking out their own ideas by cramming in as much pseudo-religious imagery, economic theory, and jerry-rigged philosophy as they can get their hands on. It’s a distracting mess that prevents access to some of the truly great subtext bubbling beneath the surface.

As much as I dearly want to extol it to the high heavens, I can’t get past its crazed, half-baked presentation. It’s like a crazy, politically abrasive uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. You have no choice but to love it at least a little (especially if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood cinema), but spending more than five minutes at a time with it is immensely taxing.I’m Brennan I do the click clack clickity clackity click click clack on my compy. Click Clack. Bathroom break. Clickly Clacky. Art. 
TL;DR: Hail, Caesar! is a messy comedy with some truly outstanding moments that are mired in impenetrable messiness.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 960

1 comment:

  1. Right on, B. I suppose I liked it a fair bit more, but, God, it's a mess.