Joel and Ethan Coen are at it again – the two wacky guys who brought us Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men have a new insta-classic to add to the list and it’s called Hail, Caesar!
The Coens are brilliant. I have no qualms about using that word, and I think their resume speaks for itself. Their names are already on this year’s Oscar ballot for having written the stirring screenplay for Bridge of Spies, an underrated but totally worthy movie that feels nothing like a Coen Brothers film, and isn’t one. They wrote it, and can write anything, but when they’re sitting in the director’s seat, they seem to prefer larger than life stories they can have a little fun with.
The Coens don’t chase box office success, but they do make the kind of movie that film buffs love to obsess over. I’m already obsessing over this one, which has been deemed by lesser souls to be of “limited appeal,” but dollars to donuts (yes I’m using that wrong and no I don’t know what it means) it’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie theatre in a good long while. This was at the expense of my fellow movie goers since I’m perennially sick and every fit of giggles dissolved into a fit of coughing. Coughing is the new clapping. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. There was lots of coughing. I mean lots of laughing!
The plot: Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a honcho at the Capitol Pictures movie studio. He’s a fixer. He doesn’t own the place, but he does make it run. We follow him for about 27 hours, a day in the life as it were, and there are no less than 4 movies being shot on the studio back lot: the first, their blockbuster Hail, Caesar!, starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman soldier who encounters Jesus Christ; the second, a movie musical currently shooting its aquatic spectacle with its newly and scandalously pregnant star (Scarlett Johansson); the third, a drama period piece set to star a spaghetti western crossover, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) much to the consternation of finicky director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); and the fourth, a comedy starring sprightly song and dance man Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). Poor Eddie has a lot to contend with – fixing stars up on dates, rescuing starlets from French postcard situations, making good on his promise to his wife to quit smoking, and fending off twin sisters and rival gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton – and that’s before he realizes that his biggest star, Baird Whitlock, has been kidnapped!
There is much (too much) to say about this film. First off, the cast was excellent. Of course it was excellent. The Coens have been in the biz an awfully long time and they’ve got a laundry list of Hollywood A-listers who beg to be in their films. George Clooney, for example, has worked with them three times before – Brother, Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading – all movies that I like, though I confess a particular burning love for Intolerable Cruelty especially. The Coens have great faith in Clooney’s comedic timing and treat us to a whole reel of his best reaction shots. It’s down right gluttonous – almost as sinful as that Roman costume they’ve got him strutting around in, showing off leg like you’ve never seen from him before. And my they’re nice legs. In fact, is there a human being on this planet who’s not a little in love with George Clooney?
Josh Brolin continues to ride this incredible surge in his career and proves a worthy choice. This is Brolin’s third Coen movie (after No Country for Old Men and True Grit) and he pulls this one together so tightly, so adroitly, you know he’ll be around for more. New comer Alden Ehrenreich impressed me immensely. IMDB assures me I’ve seen him before (in Blue Jasmin) but this is the first that I’ve noticed him – and he almost stole the show! Tilda Swinton, who is great in everything, is great again here, only doubly so since she’s handling twin duties and it’s uproarious. Heather Goldenhersh, as Mannix’s hard-working secretary, is pivotal and delightful, and I must say, this woman deserves to be fucking famous already. But even small roles are peppered with famous faces – the study group alone, from Fisher Stevens to my beloved David Krumholtz, is worthy of its own spin-off. And no Coen Brothers movie would be complete without at least a brief appearance by my spirit animal, the fabulous Frances McDormand. The reigning Coen Queen, this is her 8th film of theirs, although it’s not exactly a fair fight as she’s married to Joel (not that her oodles of talent require any nepotism). Her role is brief but watch for it, it’s a scene stealer.
So: the Coens know how to write. And they sure as hell know how to cast. And bringing back cinematographer Roger Deakins and convincing him to shoot in film again (as opposed to his preferred medium, digital) was exactly the right thing for this ode to old Hollywood. Even though your eyes see Channing Tatum in a sailor suit, your mind is steeped in 1950s glamour (which is actually much grimier than the usual coating of nostalgic veneer would have us remember). As usual with the Coens, what you see is only half of what you get. There’s a lot of layers to this seemingly lighter fare, from God and Commies, to pop culture and hydrogen bombs. I was charmed and tickled from start to finish and I’m going to find it awfully hard to buy tickets to Deadpool when what I’d really like to do is see this one again. And again. And probably again.