Sunday, July 24, 2016

OVP: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Film: Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Production Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I never quite know whether or not it's a good thing or a bad thing when I spend an entire movie just thinking about another movie, but for some reason throughout the entirety of Hail, Caesar! I couldn't help but recall select scenes of Roger Altman's excellent The Player while watching the newer film.  Both pictures skewer the idea of celebrity by using actual celebrities onscreen, though in the case of Altman the celebrities are frequently playing themselves while here they are playing versions of classic celebrities.  Still, it's a fun bit of tongue-in-cheek, and while the film lacks the wicked observation of Fargo and the overall brilliance of No Country for Old Men holding any director to the standards of such a high bar is probably unfair.  Hail, Caesar! is a fun movie, one that occasionally even tries to veer into greatness, that is anchored by being more a lovely string of vignettes than an overall cohesive picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) What I mean there is that the film itself is more focused and at its best when it is skewering Old Hollywood and our romance with it.  It's not new to present select old movie stars as being real-we've been seeing that since A Star is Born, but it's not common to see the actual movies themselves come across as rather, well, awful, but that's true here.  The films that onscreen stars like Clooney, ScarJo, Tatum, Fiennes, and Ehrenreich are all making are clearly spoofing on the classic films of people like Charlton Heston, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, George Cukor, and Roy Rogers, respectively, but not the better parts of their filmographies as all of those movies look, well, awful.  The film is supremely capable in its knowledge of old Hollywood, particularly since main character Eddie Mannix (Brolin) was actually based on a real-life "fixer" named Eddie Mannix who would cover-up stories of major Hollywood stars back in the 1940's and 50's.

These moments are great, and comedically fun set-pieces.  I think my favorite was Channing Tatum's Burt Gurney, who sings a tune about wanting dames to come into his bar and how he'll be stuck at sea without any women, but then proceeds to go into a deeply homosexual song-and-dance number that actually ends up turning the bar into a gay bar and has him being thrusted against by two backup dancers.  In a tongue-in-cheek wink to the many gay men who were paraded as straight during the period, Gurney is himself gay in real-life, but also in a twist defecting to the Russians and being aided by a team of screenwriters who are all Communist-sympathizers.  Coming in second to this hilarious comedic subplot for me was Scarlett Johansson, angelic in one of those ridiculously over-the-top water ballets that they always put in Esther Williams movies, playing a fast-talking broad offscreen, and they create an elaborate hoax to cover her pregnancy (in many ways mirroring the scandal involving Loretta Young and Clark Gable)-Johansson, who is so good so often these days as to be taken for granted, is fun in an underwritten part.

It's fun just to name-check all of these old and new movie star names, but the larger question is if the film is actually any good, and it is, but never really rising above that adjective.  Most of the film gains from its homages to old Hollywood, and really only the scenes with Ehrenreich, who clearly stands out as the only non-famous star of that cast list up-top, pop for me, perhaps because he's an unknown and I wasn't expecting him to be so wonderfully eager and charming.  He's a delight as a young, popular cowboy star who is hoping to prove that he has slightly more acting chops than the B-movie pictures that he has become famous for; Ehrenreich is terrific in this role, and I'm hoping gets more exposure after this film.  Otherwise the film probably juggles one too many plots (the entire George Clooney sequence feels largely unnecessary and like a side gag that's just there to prove that this is the quirky Coen Brothers behind the camera), and though it works in terms of watchability, it's nothing more than a passing fancy from two directors who have made films that will stay with you always.  Still, all-in-all it's a lot of fun.

Those are my thoughts on Hail, Caesar!, one of several films I've caught in the last week (we're also getting back in the swing of daily reviews on TMROJ) that we'll be discussing.  For those of you who saw this (and it was a pretty big hit all things considered, so I'm guessing that's quite a few of you)-what were your thoughts?  Did you enjoy the Old Hollywood homages, or were you leaving disappointed that it didn't have the cerebral ticks of something like A Serious Man?  Share your thoughts below!

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