Comedy Drama Film Review 2016: "Hail, Caesar!"(Written & Directed by Coen Bros.,W/ George Clooney, Josh Brolin, et. al)
Kirk Douglas, Dalton Trumbo, Billy Wilder. What do these three have in common? They were all Hollywood heavyweights of the bygone Golden Age of American cinema. Just when the studio system was beginning to split apart and combust at the seams, these three, along with a multitude of others risked their careers and put their passion into projects whose outcome was just a contract signature away from sinking or swimming. The hunt for communists from within, known as the "Red Scare", turned directors against their writers and producers against production companies and agents. No one's job security was truly safe and no production big or small was impenetrable. But, alas, all is never as it seems.
Joel & Ethan Coen, masterminds behind some of the greatest black comedies and melodramas of the last twenty years, finally come back for a film after a three year hiatus since their Oscar Isaac career catalyzer "Inside Llewyn Davis" which was very loosely based off of the career of folk rock activist and pioneer Dave Van Ronk. Deciding to not double down on yet another Awards-bait type film, The Coens wisely shifted gears back to their more formative and "greener" days when they churned out lower budget gems like "Barton Fink", "The Hudsucker Proxy" and one of their most bizarre but endearing misfires "Intolerable Cruelty" (also starring Clooney). It’s a decision that yields a wellspring of inspiration for the dual auteurs and you can tell they have an immediate soft spot for that era of cinema despite not being of age during this timeline. Curiously, "Hail, Caesar!" takes a sidestep in its assessment of Tinseltown and rather than malign its flaws and corruption, tackles the systems at work head on with a surprising degree of positivity. The Bros. remain the least bitter about their ascent from indie darlings to major titans of cinematic industry and those strands shine through here. Despite that, the story lines do quibble and wobble a few too many times and on more than one occasion fly off the rails.
One can't analyze a Coen Bros. film without shining a super LED of wattage on the assembled cast. Just rattling off names: newbie to the Coen-verse Josh Brolin, vets George Clooney and Frances McDormand, the ever eccentric Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, bromanced comedic actors Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill and the magnetic, pin-up girl, movie star decadence of Scarlett Johannsson - and you can't go wrong. Oh, and I can't leave out up and comer Alden Ehrenreich with his dexterous spaghetti lasso skills and convincing Midwestern drawl who stole every scene he was in and wound up boosting the seasoned pros around him. At this point, the brothers are stalwarts of Hollywood and, like Woody Allen, John Hughes, Judd Apatow, or Ivan Reitman, can call upon the greatest marquee names in the biz to shepherd their vision into gut-busting fruition. "Hail, Caesar!” in many other ways is also the most un-Coen film as it samples from the extensive playbook of Wes Anderson with its whimsy and awkwardly hammy line readings of its stars as well as aping some of his elements of production design. Their film reunites Fiennes and Swinton, both of whom were last seen together in 2014's runaway hit "Grand Budapest Hotel". And, unsurprisingly, this latest one has many of the same deficits as Anderson's weakest entries.
Dare I say it, but the script of this film is rather cacophonous when compared to their most esteemed and enduring movies. Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, a take-no-bullshit insider "fixer" and "cleaner" whose specific job it is to mop up messes in and around the sprawling back lots and sound stages of the fictitious "Capitol Pictures Studios" is a central plot himself. Burdened with a rapidly deteriorating marriage, insecurities over staying with his job, and some funny bits regarding his pathetic attempts at kicking his cigarette habit cold turkey, Mannix is an ageing flower that has been reduced to a shrinking violet. Amid all the high-gloss and saturated swimming pools of money, living the highfalutin life now appears unfulfilling and tiresome. But, like many middle aged people he ultimately must question: where do I go from here? If the movie concentrated its entire energy on Mannix and his run-ins with starlets and productions and the bureaucracy of the times, "Hail, Caesar!" could be considered a favorable cousin to "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man". Its failings reside in the B plot that involves prestige picture actor Baird Whitlock, played deliriously with a ditzy spin by George Clooney who gets kidnapped by a mysteriously covert organization called "The Future". As it turns out, this group has one thing in common: they were blacklisted Hollywood professionals. This could have been an excellent foray but, instead, it leaves much to be desired because the aims of the group to get their much sought after comeuppance are oddly narrow. As if $100,000 in ransom money will send a message to the powers that be? The Coens' should have written these characters more convincingly and, say, emboldened them with a motivation to the tune of getting their royalties and names back on the scripts that were essentially stolen from them. Additionally, the scenes with them and Clooney are mildly amusing but are comedically and dramatically inert where there's no tangible payoff for Whitlock or his captors. I was certainly scratching my head for those scenes.
So, is this film very much a lesser Coen piece? Yes, but you can't fault the siblings for just having fun and not having their eyes squarely on the prize this time. Falling comfortably in between their worst (Tom Hanks thanklessly subbing for Alec Guinness in “The Ladykillers” remake) and their best (the awesome combo of haggard but still gamey gunslinger Jeff Bridges and independent Old West teen Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”) is A-OK. Brolin's Mannix is one of the best protagonists they've ever concocted and gives the film a much needed moral and ethical center. In the last act where Whitlock has a temper tantrum over the duping nature of the studio system, Mannix winningly slaps him upside the head and demands that being a star and crafting fine art is something he was born to do and regardless of the seedy behind the scenes stuff he ought to press on and continue to be irreplaceable and captivating. In the film's final moments, Mannix resumes his job as Hollywood janitor and does so with the confident stride and spring in his step with the understanding that the journey never ceases as long as you've got inspiration and ambition pulsing through you.