Silver Screen: Hail, Caesar! ****
The Coen brothers tend to get busted for indulging their silly side.
It’s an issue of Coen-on-Coen crime. When you’re capable of making a genre-redefining crime movie or an Americana folk musical or an Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation, you’re held to a higher standard. The implication is that the Coens somehow owe the moviegoing public something more.
Just because they’ve been elevated to the level of artistes doesn’t mean they no longer like to goof off. Burn After Reading and especially The Ladykillers were snubbed for their frivolity, as though that was unintentional. The Ladykillers had plenty of interesting conceits— the clash of the genteel old-world South and the hip-hop generation, and a linguistic slapstick muddle of miscommunication you could describe as Wittgensteinian if you were trying to sound smarter than you are— but because it prioritized laughs it was shunned as second-class.
That Hail, Caesar! opened just prior to the Super Bowl, on the worst weekend of one of the worst months of the cinema calendar, doesn’t suggest much faith from the studio. The movie has been derided as aimless, plotless, and unfocused— as though that was unintentional.
Hail, Caesar! doesn’t feel like a substantial, main-course kind of a movie because it’s not. It’s a spectacular dessert, a brownie-studded cookie sitting atop a chocolate sundae draped over bananas foster smoldering on a baked Alaska.
Nominally it’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a real-life character who worked as an in-house fixer in Hollywood during the heyday of the studio, here thoroughly fictionalized and Coen-ized. The day-in-the-life portrait of Mannix, an unflappable problem-solver whose oddball work is never done, is just the glue— or the frosting— that binds together the film’s sundry players.
Chief among them is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the dashing star of the studio’s next epic, a Biblical tale told from the perspective of a Roman soldier. The expensive picture is near the end of the shooting when Baird vanishes, drugged and rather politely kidnapped by a group of disaffected Communist writers. The mostly toothless conspiracy is so accommodating that dimwit Baird not only fails to recognize the threat, he’s swayed to join them.
Mannix’s primary mission is to find Whitlock, but he also needs to find a creative explanation for the pregnancy of an unwed starlet (Scarlett Johansson), convince a prim British director (Ralph Fiennes) to cast a wide-eyed singing cowpoke (Alden Ehrenreich) in a drawing-room drama, appease a pair of twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, twice!), and finish production on a musical about singing sailors starring a secretive hoofer (Channing Tatum).
There’s a lot going on, perhaps a bit too much. The charming Veronica Osorio is lost in the shuffle as a sweet-natured actress paired up with the singing cowboy for a public-relations stunt, and Mannix’s wife might have been better left as an offscreen presence despite being played by the always welcome Alison Pill. Meanwhile, Frances McDormand kills it in a lone scene as a laser-focused film editor; there’s almost no excuse for her to be in the movie, but I wanted more of her anyway. And that’s leaving out Jonah Hill entirely, perhaps because he’s very nearly left out, managing perhaps three or four lines of dialogue despite prominent placement in the ad campaign.
But to bemoan the flimsiness of the plot that ties these characters together or the brevity of their individual screentime is to miss the point. Hail, Caesar! is closer to sketch comedy than a conventional feature. If the joke’s on anyone, it’s not the audience, it’s on the studio. The Coens essentially convinced them to fund the creation of an enormous sandbox in which they could play out their love of old Hollywood and dabble in bygone genres.
The movies within the movie— not just the Baird Whitlock-starring Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, but cowboy crooner Lonesome Ol’ Moon and a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley knockoff— allow the Coens to make a little bit of the kind of movies they’d never get to make in their entireties. Sure, it’s parody, but before the Tatum-led musical number totally devolves into homoerotic double-entendre, it’s a genuinely jaunty, sharply choreographed dance sequence.
Some of the scenes would play just as well removed from context entirely. Fiennes’s frustrated attempt to teach Ehrenreich’s guileless simpleton how to drolly utter the line “Were that it were so” could be airlifted into Saturday Night Live, and would only stick out because it has a punchline. In an earlier scene, Mannix convenes four clergymen of different faiths to determine whether or not Hail, Caesar! is theologically appropriate, and the result is a protracted, three-dimensional take on the old “A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi walk into a bar...” gag.
The scene with the clergymen adds exactly zero to the plot’s momentum. But it’s so damn funny, it would be a crime to leave it out. Hail, Caesar! may wear the veneer of a prestige picture, but it’s a costume just as surely as Clooney’s leather skirt and sandals or Tatum’s sailor whites. This is a big, generous grab bag of jokes that range from broad slapstick to obscure historical references.
I’m not convinced there will be a funnier moment this year than a disaffected union crewmember asking the actor who plays Jesus whether or not he’s eligible for a boxed lunch or a hot lunch. “Are you an extra or a principal?” the mook asks Jesus. “A principle... I think?” Jesus replies.
Hail the Coens.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.