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Hail, Caesar!, the latest comic satire from Joel and Ethan Coen, is one of those films that has so much that is right with it, plus a bit more that is brilliant, that it makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn’t quite come together.
The basic premise has as its center piece one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at the fictional Hollywood studio Capital Pictures (the same studio that the Brothers used in Barton Fink). Over the course of one or two days, he has a difficult decision to make: should he remain at Capitol where he’s constantly having to put out fires both large and small and is constantly confronted by the insane antics of his stars, or will he take a position as head of Lockheed, a safe position with a guaranteed future (this is the 1950’s after all, and TV is more than making its presence known), fewer hours and less stress on the nerves?
Well, so far so good.
The movie has a myriad of subplots involving such characters as an Esther Williams type star who is pregnant out of wedlock (Scarlett Johansson); a Gene Kelly like dancer doing an On the Town type dance number (Channing Tatum); an overly polite and humble Audie Murphy like star of B westerns who the studio wants to promote to A movies of the drawing room kind (Alden Ehrenreich) being directed by a George Cukor type director (Ralph Fiennes); a Robert Taylor/Charlton Heston type movie star starring in a wide-screen epic of the Ben Hur and The Robe kind (George Clooney); and perhaps most delirious of all, twin sisters, Hedda Hopper like gossip columnists who hate each other and vie for Mannix’s attention (and who, though both are played brilliantly by a single Tilda Swinton, the characters on screen never have any trouble telling the two apart).
If nothing else, it’s a sublimely cast movie with choices that one could at times call witty.
And this is where so much of the genius resides, from the Busby Berkley like water ballet that puts the originals to shame (mainly due to the use of some marvelous CGI effects); to a Gene Kelly/On the Town dance number that could easily have been one the great dancer created himself, with beautiful choreography and an extraordinarily charming moment as sailors dance on tables as a bartender pulls table cloths out from under them; to a fun, spot on satire of Biblical epics that became popular when Cinerama and 70mm took over theaters.
However the biggest surprise is Ehrenreich as the Audie Murphy look alike. The previews suggested this character was going to be ridiculed ruthlessly. But, no. Ehrenreich gives the character such down home, egoless charm you can see why someone would want to put him movies. He has great chemistry with one of those blind dates arranged by the studio for publicity reasons (Veronica Osorio as Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda type star) and there’s a rapturous moment when the two are at the premiere of his latest film and he’s so insecure as to whether the audience is going to like it. But they do and you can see the joy in his face as he relaxes and joins in the laughter.
The movie is also filled with a ton of in jokes, like Capitol Pictures and Barton Fink; Carlotta Valdez being the name of the person Jimmy Stewart was hired to follow in Vertigo; and two stories that haunted Clark Gable, a baby out of wedlock and the legend as to how he got ahead in Hollywood.
This is the least effective part of the plot and for me, the reason why the film feels like it never quite comes together, but seems a bit all over the place. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that this is one plot turn of the movie that doesn’t seem to be based on something that really happened (it may have, I suppose, but I don’t know of it and I’ve yet to see anyone else suggest what it is based on). It just feels like it doesn’t belong.
In addition, everybody claims that the actor going missing is a catastrophe and that he has to be found or Armageddon will descend upon them. I mean, they say it, but their actions never really remotely correspond to the talk. No one really does all that much about it considering the emergency everyone claims it to be.
Also, Hail, Caesar! is supposed to be Mannix’s story, not Whitlock’s. But this subplot takes up so much time in the film and when all is said and done, Mannix has so little to with it (he doesn’t even really resolve the issue, it just sort of plays itself out), that it throws the whole movie off balance.
With Michael Gambon as the narrator; Francis McDormand as an editor; Jonah Hill as someone the studio pays to be the fall guy for various scandals; and a bunch of familiar faces as the Communists (ironically enough here, Alex Karpovsky is the stand out as a photographer who has no lines).