Hail, Caesar! (2016)
George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Hail, Caesar! feels like one of those movies with a hundred inside jokes I will never get. I enjoyed it because it’s such a fun movie on the level I do understand, but the enjoyment was tinged with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.
What’s clear is that the Coens are poking fun at (and paying tribute to) the movie studio system in the Fifties, a time when the studios were barely clinging to the old Hollywood rules, when executives decided not only who would be stars, but how those stars would behave in public. One of these stars (played by Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and unmarried, so the studio’s fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is called in for damage control. Since it would be scandalous for her to have this baby out of wedlock, Eddie comes up with a strange plan to make it look like the actress is adopting an orphan.
As Eddie moves from one concern to another, we’re treated to a series of films in production on the studio lot, each of them an example of the big-budget offerings once upon a time. We have a singing cowboy movie, a synchronized swimming movie, a song-and-dance movie (brilliantly executed by Channing Tatum in the movie’s second-best moment), a European costume drama, and a Biblical epic. The star of the epic (George Clooney) is kidnapped for ransom, and Eddie’s tracking him down is the central plot.
The story is okay, but what makes this film fun are the performances by the actors, who get to do that showy pre-Brando acting, and some really funny situational humor. You know that stupid old gag where someone says, “repeat after me” and someone else repeats everything, including the stuff that’s obviously not supposed to be repeated? There’s a moment here where a director and actor have an exchange like this, and I almost laughed myself to tears. Yeah, it’s silly, but the Coens give the gag a slightly different spin and then take it past silliness and into absurdity.
It’s a strangely goofy movie, one that succeeds because its directors put really good actors in odd situations and let them do their thing. Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists for competing papers is a joy to watch. Clooney as the doofus big-name marquee idol has a pathetic puppy-dog cuteness, but when he delivers the big speech in his film, you remember what a good actor he is and why he seems to be one of the Coens’ muses. And Aldon Ehrenreich as the singing cowboy who the studio wants to turn into its next idol is perfect. I’d never heard of him, but it seems clear he’s going to be huge in a few years. I discovered as I was taking notes for this review that he’s going to be Han Solo in the spinoff film series. I can totally see it.
Don’t go in expecting Fargo or Inside Llewyn Davis, forgive its horrible-awful-stupid title, and it’s a surprisingly good movie.