#8: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Comedy
1h46min; PG-13

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

In this age of mega-franchises and billion dollar summer blockbusters where is it that filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, brothers who together have made a 20+ year career out of going their own way in the film industry, fit in? Perhaps they don’t. This is what their most recent film Hail, Caesar! articulates. As with every Coen bros. film the answer is not that simple.

The film follows the daily activities of 1950s Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix is conflicted about his work, debating on whether he should leave for an easier, higher paying job than cleaning up film industry scandals. When Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a mysterious group called the Future, Eddie sets about trying to track him down. The ’50s hysteria over Communism somehow factors but I won’t tell.

Unless you regularly follow film industry news you may not have come across the 2013 comments on the current cinematic landscape by legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The idea is that with the way major movie studios are leaning almost entirely on mega-blockbuster franchise films, eventually there will be a string (“‘three or four or maybe even a half-dozen'”) of these billion-dollar films that flop at the box office, leading to the bankruptcy and destruction of the current film industry. An “implosion”, they call it. You can read the gist of the story at The Hollywood Reporter.

Channing Tatum is very close to turning in something unforgettable.

Hail, Caesar! ponders how to fix the problem. Perhaps the current industry can’t be saved. The old studio system needs to fade away to make room for the new but it might already be too late. The best independent cinema has disappeared to foreign lands. However, American indie filmmaking could be saved if people- writers, directors, actors, and everyone else who works in the movies- simply stopped playing along with the studio system. The film showcases just how difficult it is to turn your back on the system, particularly for actors.

Filled to the heavens with an all-star cast the film wallows along in absurdity as only the Coen bros. can. Clooney plays the dumb movie star well and is only bested in screen time by Brolin, who is serviceable as Eddie. Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Alison Pill and Frances McDormand all play bit parts as a scandal-ridden actress, a surety agent, Eddie’s wife and a film editor, respectively. Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran is the funniest piece of the film, with her Esther Williamsesque demeanor and a comment about a fish ass that made me blurt out laughter.

The film’s best scene is a verbal standoff on a soundstage between western star Hobie Doyle (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) and Ralph Fiennes’ acclaimed director Laurence Laurentz.  Soon to play a young Han Solo for Disney, Ehrenreich is mesmerizing as a blockbuster cowboy actor challenged by serious drama and Fiennes’ partially enters that place that made his Gustav H. such a hilarious pleasure to watch in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The scene goes on for so long that it really hammers home the bros.’ message.

Eventually there will be a string of billion-dollar films that flop at the box office, leading to the destruction of the current film industry.

While Channing Tatum only has a few lines as musical actor Burt Gurney he is so very fun to watch. Combined with his recent acting output in Foxcatcher and The Hateful Eight Tatum is very, very close to turning in something unforgettable. I can’t wait. The only performance that doesn’t exactly stick is Tilda Swinton’s play at twin gossip columnists reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker. In both performances I couldn’t tell if Swinton was trying to have an English or an American accent but she switches back and forth multiple times in both cases. Michael Gambon narrates throughout, just because. 

Yet again, yet again, yet again (yet again, yet again… and so on and so forth) the legendary Roger Deakin’ cinematography is a sight to behold, particularly indoors. A heavy use of ambiance makes for a gorgeous scene set inside a Chinese restaurant complete with an eye-wateringly pretty aquarium with exotic fish. The conversation between Eddie and a man with a job offer is the most beautiful part of Hail, Caesar!. While I enjoyed the outdoor scenes none of them are quite as impressive, although of course I don’t understand how difficult it is to achieve such visual beauty.

“It is a frivolous business, isn’t it?” someone says halfway through the film. The film industry overpays its actors and underpays pretty much everyone else and it is time for things to change. Eddie Mannix wonders how easy it is to change, to take the easier path when the current road is so damn difficult sometimes. When Mannix finally makes his decision it gives me hope. Perhaps things can change, if we had but… if we had but…

 

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