Not funny enough, or too hip for the house? I found the Coen Bros.’ send-up of old-fashioned movie madness good fun, with some great new actors. If you like droll comedy combined with spot-on recreations of old movie genres, this show can’t lose. And there has to be somebody out there who wants to see George Clooney in a skirt.
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
2016 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date June 7, 2016 / 34.98
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Max Baker, Clancy Brown, Fisher Stevens, Patick Fischler, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Robert Trebor, Michael Gambon (voice), Dolph Lundgren.
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Film Editors Ethan and Joel Coen
Original Music Carter Burwell
Produced by Tim Bevan, Ethan and Joel Coen, Eric Fellner
Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Hate Ethan and Joel Coen movies? Hail, Caesar! might be a chore for you. Everybody else should be tickled by this droll, affectionate look at Hollywood circa 1951, which throws together a lot of myths, apocrypha and just plain fantasy. Comical satires of Hollywood can be funny or insightful, or downright mean-spirited. The Coens have no apparent agenda to push, and offer mostly smart jokes over dumb ones. The movie doesn’t try to be historically accurate, but when it invents things it’s all in fun. Some reviewers thought the whole enterprise too lightweight, or were looking for bigger and more obvious laughs. I confess that I was grateful for a comedy that doesn’t billboard gross-out sex or toilet humor. Hollywood pictures packed with in-jokes can be pretty annoying, but the Coens handle this one with such taste and (I’ll say it again) affection that having a fun time is easy.
You gotta get worked up about the multiple crises faced in just one 24 hour period by studio chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Several major productions are in jeopardy, because of crazy things happening the stars’ private lives. The monstrous twin sisters and gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are always hungry for star-destroying, circulation-building scandals. Bathing suit & swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is unmarried and pregnant and having trouble getting in and out of her mermaid costume. The presumed father is director Arne Seslum (Christopher Lambert), presently filming a lively musical with song ‘n’ dance sensation Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). When he finds out that Seslum is happily married, Eddie sells DeeAnna on the idea of a fake adoption using the legal services of ‘professional person’ Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill). Joseph specializes in quasi-legal services for Eddie; he’s already gone to jail once, to cover for one of the studio’s stars. Meanwhile, a shortage of top talent forces Eddie to cast singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (the rumored new screen Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated white-telephone drama. Hobie is graceful on a horse, but director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) finds that he can’t handle dialogue longer than two syllables. Eddie handles these problems with admirable tact and restraint, which is why he’s being courted to run Lockheed Aviation, a ‘respectable’ company with a future. The biggest crisis by far is the studio’s super-production “Hail Caesar!” set in Roman times. Eddie convenes a group of religious leaders to give their blessings to the script. With some crucial filming still to go, “Hail Caesar’s’ star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped and held for a hundred-thousand dollar ransom. As Eddie prepares to pay up, Hobie Doyle goes on a studio-mandated date with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), an ‘exotic’ musical star who sings and dances wearing costumes made of bananas. They’re just hitting it off at a fancy Hollywood watering hole, when the observant Hobie sees his chance to come to the rescue of the kidnapped Baird Whitlock.
Hail, Caesar! may be lightweight, but it’s bright, breezy and funny at all times. Veteran Coen player Josh Brolin is a marvelous straight man to all the nonsense. Hardly anything fazes his Eddie Mannix, a true-blue guy who goes to confession every night to fess up about things like sneaking cigarettes. Eddie is a big executive but he drives his own car, and tries to be good to his wife. He’s mainly an ace solver of problems not found in any other business. Eddie can ask for $100,000 in petty cash at a moment’s notice, and nobody bats an eye; finding somebody to take a hit & run rap for a star is business as usual. His stars’ sex lives are his business, and they thank him for being someone they can trust. His secretary Natalie (Heather Goldenhersh) follows him everywhere; their rapport as they suss out gnarly issues is amusing in itself.
The Coens reconstruct a number of films from the era with great accuracy. They may be the film’s reason for being; all are from ‘dead’ genres mourned by film lovers. Hobie’s series western is far too clever to be real, but it captures the spirit of innocent oaters without the sour letdown of other nostalgic shows, like the good Jeff Bridges movie Hearts of the West. The snippet we see of Hobie’s newest hit, with its white-bearded sidekick and a farm girl mooning after him, is a cartoonish exaggeration unlike any old western series. But Hobie in person epitomizes the myth of the cowpoke-turned star. He’s sincere and loyal to a fault, and just the guy we want on our side when it’s time to rescue a kidnapped movie star. He also sings quite nicely and makes a charming date for the lively Carlotta Valdez.
The Coens naturally put Hobie in the absolutely wrong kind of picture, which cues a forced but amusing Abbott & Costello scene between the cowboy star and Ralph Fiennes’ fussy English director, Laurence Laurentz. Hobie is incapable of actor’s acting. Until the joke runs thin the scene is a great parody of the limits of sensitive direction: Would that it were so simple.” Laurentz reads the line over and over for Hobie, giving it ten different inflections. Hobie is unflappably patient, but he can’t make one word follow another.
DeeAnna’s aquacade spectacular is an almost an exact copy of Esther Williams’ Million Dollar Mermaid, but it can’t compare because we know the original’s water ballet visuals were done without special effects. The scene works because Scarlett Johansson emanates a genuine ‘movie star glow’ from the first moment we see her. All she need do is wink at us and her acrobatic diving scene comes to life. In the film’s other musical number Channing Tatum doesn’t have that instantaneous audience connection. The set design for Gurney’s ‘horny sailor’ song ‘n’ dance is a dead ringer for the set for the classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number in the old MGM musical Words and Music. Channing looks like a great dancer, and the only cheating we see is with a couple of wire-assisted leaps. Yet the dance sequence, for all its clever invention, doesn’t bring back the old ‘MGM’ feeling. Channing Tatum’s Gurney is clearly channeling Gene Kelly, but to the audience he’s an unknown. We need to first believe that he’s a star.
The biggest recreation in “Hail Caesar!” pegs a specific film, 1951’s bloated Christians vs. Romans saga Quo Vadis. The opening scenes and dialogue are almost the same, as is the tepid bacchanal attended by George Clooney’s Centurion. Clooney looks amusingly ‘right’ in Baird Whitlock’s Roman soldier costume, with its pleated skirt. The final scene at the Cross makes fun of the already rather funny finale of The Robe with Richard Burton. All that transcendent enlightenment must be invented and acted like any other scene, which gives us the hilarious spectacle of Baird Whitlock trying out twenty different faces of Awe and Wonder.
[ A little earlier, an assistant director asks the crucified Christ if he’s a day player or an extra, so as to know to assign him a hot lunch or a box lunch. The moment encapsules an entire Pier Paolo Pasolini short subject about a film crew filming the Crucifixion, Ricotta,. It’s part of the movie Ro.Go.Pa.G.. ]
Movie fans may not like the fact that this droll recreation of old studio days doesn’t have a big message to deliver. This time around the Coens have no deep things to say about human nature, not even among movie phonies. Even the twin gossip harpies the Thacker sisters are too feeble to get worked up about. The only potentially controversial issue is addressed in an elaborate subplot that probably won’t offend anybody either. I won’t explain their full role in the show, but a ‘Marxist study group’ turns out to be a pack of overpaid writers obsessed with seizing the ‘means of production’ from the capitalist overlords. As in right-wing exposés, their theoretician leader has a notion of getting the Hollywood system to destroy itself from within. They talk big, but what they actually do is pitiful. One excited writer (Max Baker) congratulates himself because he managed to slip Commie propaganda into a movie – a bit of dialogue nobody would ever notice. The joke is pretty much buried — the real Hollywood Commies were such a contentious crowd that they mostly argued with each other, much like the religious leaders we see earlier in the movie. Nothing they did had a prayer of ‘warping American values.’
Just as seemed to happen in reality, after a few minutes of coffee-klatch indoctrination, a gullible movie star is easily convinced that his life’s mission is to help overthrow Hollywood in the name of the masses. The star believes it in his heart, just as he does any role he’s asked to play. But as he’s really a birdbrain incapable of committing to anything, democracy will stay safe. Does anybody else pick up on these jokes? I have a feeling that much of this comment is the filmmakers amusing themselves.
The subplot concludes with a preposterous fantasy, a rendezvous with a Soviet submarine that’s like a scene from the comedy 1941. Like everything else in the movie, it is tossed off with a blasé ‘imagine that!’ sense of absurdity. I suspect that some Coen fans that don’t like this show are reacting with reason to the film’s unwillingness to make a solid statement. Hail, Caesar! isn’t really serious about anything. The submarine scene may actually be too subtle: audiences are surely willing to believe that such a fantasy might be true, that Russian invaders were at the gates, and those traitors in Hollywood were letting them in. In our ‘information age’ unchallenged bald lies are given equal status with hard knowledge, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers were to misread the Coens’ gentle satire.
All movies about Hollywood distort the role of the editor, so it’s amusing to see Frances McDormand as C.C. Calhoun, a crusty old editrix cutting Hobie’s tuxedo movie. Calhoun actually makes the incoherent actor seem to play a scene, by cutting around him. Being myself a crusty nitpicker, I looked for flaws in the editing room scene. Aha! Calhoun is smoking in a room packed with nitrate film! It even burns in the gate and doesn’t explode! [ No, by 1951 acetate film had replaced the hazardous nitrate film stock. ] And she’s using full-coat Mag film in the Movieola, not an optical track! [ This I’m not sure of… a web search didn’t reveal when Mag audio stock took over from optical tracks. ]
The Coens’ Hollywood fantasy uses a real personage at MGM, Eddie Mannix. Mannix was a studio factotum who reportedly did his share of dirty work, covering up for stars’ misbehavior, some of it criminal. The movie Hollywoodland uses the actual Eddie Mannix as a character (played by Bob Hoskins) and associates him tangentially with the shooting death of actor George Reeves, TV’s Superman. Here Mannix is a production head at a studio that looks like the Warner lot, although I guess it could be Universal. Josh Brolin is great in the role. Unlikely as it seems, his Mannix is a reasonable guy just trying to make things work. Two problems on Eddie’s long list, one of them with his son at home, miraculously ‘fix themselves’ without his further involvement. Eddie seems perfectly satisfied.
What makes the Coens’ writing great? Nothing is arbitrary. One of Mannix’s problems solves itself with a dinner date that happens off-screen, that we don’t see. Even though it sounds like an amusing scene, maybe even an important one, we don’t miss its absence. I think the Coens have an excellent sense of What To Show and What Not To Show. That’s great storytelling.
Hail, Caesar!has some fine new talent. Alden Erenreich is as ingratiating as heck, while Veronica Ossorio brightens up their scenes to the degree that we think we’re in a charming old movie. The familiar Coen regulars sketch their characters in fast, bold strokes, while folk like Jonah Hill get top billing with barely one half of one scene. Actor Clancy Brown is given a really great bit – he plays the Centurion’s main companion with a gravel voice and a facial scar that makes him a dead ringer for the great Charles McGraw, in Spartacus. My favorite small part in the show is played by Robert Picardo. His Rabbi patiently suffers while various Christian church leaders debate the nature of Christ. He’s quietly hilarious.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Hail, Caesar! is the expected flawless transfer of yet another quirky Coen comedy. The picture dashes off its impressive set pieces that restage classic movie situations, and cameraman Roger Deakins makes them look exactly right. We’re told that the crucifixion scene uses the same scenic backing as was used for 1959’s Ben-Hur.
For extras we’re given four neatly edited promo pieces. Shots taken on the set show some of the effects used, but barring wide views, most of what’s on camera is real. To some degree the Coens shoot the film like an old movie, with many static camera setups and nothing handheld. This immediately makes everything look ‘vintage’: nowadays, a locked-down wide shot is almost a sure sign of a matte effect.
The package contains discs in both formats, plus a code for the Digital HD download.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound:Excellent English, French, Spanish.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson