Hail Caesar!

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The first terrific movie of 2016, the Coen Brothers’ lavishly inspired Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! is one of their very best comedies, a gleaming love letter to the old Hollywood studio system that both evangelizes the transformative magic of the movies while affectionately critiquing Tinseltown’s castles in the air. It’s a sublimely comedic picture, and one that is stylish, exceedingly funny and like manna for film lovers, loaded with yesteryear movie in-jokes and wonderfully performed movie-within-a-movie sequences joyous as anything onscreen in ages.

Picture opens in 1951 with the shooting of a sword-and-sandals Biblical epic on the order of Ben Hur titled Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ. The production is thrown into jeopardy when star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney as a clueless, handsome mug, is kidnapped from the set by a mysterious faction named The Future, a group of shacked-up, Malibu beach Communist screenwriters trying to convince still-costumed Whitlock to join their club. In two extended scenes of dry comic genius (where even the legendary philosopher Herbert Marcuse shows up and the phrase “name names” is coined) this is pointed, smart stuff.

With ransom demands topping 100k, enter Capitol Pictures studio boss and “fixer,” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), responsible for wrangling wayward starlets, pairing up pregnant actresses with eligible bachelors and pulling all manner of strings to keep productions on schedule.

Those productions include an Esther Williams-like water epic featuring an acerbically funny Scarlett Johansson and a hugely enjoyable, sailors at sea musical starring Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly surrogate, singing and tapping like nobody’s business. Tatum shines brightly in Hail, Caesar!, and his centerpiece musical number—complete with randy seamen hoofing upon tables in a port-of-call saloon—is an absolute pleasure of full-bodied choreography and exuberant love of dance. The star also figures into the film’s witty climax involving a submarine, pooch and…a shadowy Dolph Lundgren.

But it’s young actor Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro, Beautiful Creatures) who nearly walks away with the film as a Roy Rogers-esque, drawling cowboy star named Hobie Doyle, plucked from Westerns to play a serious dramatic role for an uptight director (a wonderfully deadpan Ralph Fiennes). In a lengthy sequence of sustained comic invention that made me cry tears of laughter (and joy), the priggish Fiennes attempts to get a simple line reading from enunciation-challenged Ehrenreich, whose home-on-the-range yokel clashes with Fiennes’ uppercrust Brit, resulting in high-order lunacy. Ehrenreich, with great verbal and physical wit, knows his way around comedy and has two wonderful bits with a lasso and spaghetti noodle that are as endearing as anything in this picture or any other.

There are many more pleasures in Hail, Caesar!, including a very funny theological focus group of sorts where Mannix attempts to get the blessings of a rabbi, reverend and a pair of priests, and some perfectly cast cameos from Jonah Hill, Fisher Stevens, Christopher Lambert (!) and Frances McDormand as the studio’s battle axe editor who gets one fabulous bit of physical comedy. And then there’s a loony, tart-tongued Tilda Swinton as twin sister gossip columnists (think Hedda Hopper) threatening to expose a buried studio scandal.

Of course, the Coens have examined the darker side of Hollywood in one of their most famous pictures, Barton Fink, a canon masterpiece about the corruption of the soul—and artistic integrity—of a fledgling playwright swallowed up by an insipid industry. Ditto kidnapping plots, from Fargo to Raising Arizona, though like Hail, Caesar! the abduction is always the MacGuffin.  In my book it is a much more effective movie about period Hollywood than Trumbo, the pedestrian and second tier biopic dealing with many of the same topics, from communism to the power of the pen and shifting production loyalties.

Holding it all together is Mannix, the picture’s true lead, a guilt-ridden Catholic addicted to cigarettes and whom we first meet in confession as a man tortured by his nicotine slips at the expense of his wife’s trust. His sequences are sometimes narrated by the great Michael Gambon in the vein of hard-boiled, tongue-in-cheek noir. Dependable Brolin imbues Mannix with droll comic shadings and a buried melancholy about the future of his industry while being courted by a major airline for a career switch which would give his family a more stable husband and father. But can he leave the dream factory behind?

After 106 bliss-filled minutes, I sure couldn’t.

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