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Review: Hail, Caesar!

Joel and Ethan Coen are no strangers to paying tribute to Hollywood, having already done so with their 1990s features Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. Their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, is a homage to the 1950s golden age of production, when the studio system was at it’s most prominent –  featuring an series of films-within-films that satirize various popular genres of the time.

Set mainly on the backlot of the fictional Capitol Pictures, the story follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer who spends his time keeping schedules on track and breaking up major controversies involving talent. Throughout the film he is occupied with the sudden kidnapping of major star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), amidst a myriad of other problems happening in and around the area. Whitlock’s abduction occurs just as the studio’s latest prestige picture (of which the film gets its title from) is to be completed, a religious epic aiming to be bigger than the Bible itself. A rogue Communist group known as ‘The Future’ are behind Whitlock’s disappearance, and seek to use his ransom as a means of helping Mother Russia, further upping the ante on how absurd the plot gets.

In the lead role, Brolin displays a sense of panic-ridden charm, that oscillates between homages to screwball comedy and film noir with ease. His character represents the archetypal hard-boiled figure, made endearing through the addition of a personal side that strays from typical representations of such a persona. Conversely, Clooney’s performance, is that of the narrow-minded leading man, and is a testament to why he is so sought after by the Coens, being the fourth comedy they’ve done together. As Whitlock, he manages to spoof his own sense of figure, being a dim-bulb willing to go along with the Communists and their plan with not much convincing. Given that Clooney usually plays the straight man in serious, dramatic features, its interesting to see him only pursue this type of character, and his performance as Whitlock may be one of his most energetic to date.

The rest of the ensemble is a myriad of talent, ranging from new faces and Coen regulars. The actor tasked with helping Mannix with his predicament is Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy star incapable of operating outside the confines of his primary genre. Ehrenreich steals the show more than once, and a sequence involving the completed cut of his latest feature ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ is perhaps the best fake movie in a Coens movie since the ‘Gutterballs’ sequence from The Big Lebowski. Actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) soars in a particular scene depicting a well-choreographed mermaid dance film, yet her off-screen mannerisms are foul and conniving. Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who hires Doyle for his latest chamber-room drama, flawlessly encapsulates the exquisite, stiff upper lip category of British filmmakers imported to America, and the high degree to which they operate. And Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a popular actor known for Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly style musicals, gives the film it’s best overall sequence, a nautically-themed dance number that is gay in more ways than one. Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), twin sisters who operate as the opposing sides of Hollywood gossip bring a delightful sense of comic pathos into the mix. Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill each receive a brief appearance, though aside from one comic moment each, don’t feel like anything more than a cameo.

Several themes apparent in the Coens’ other films are present, aside from the obvious kidnapping motif. Religion is predominant from the opening shot onward, and its rare to see this division between industry and faith explored through such comic territory. Chaos, just as well, is the motivating course of action for The Future to enact their plan, coupled with their desire to move past the status quo and the ways in which Hollywood operates as an instrument of capitalist ideology. Even blatant existentialism, as the film itself exposes the dark undercurrent of the studio system, as behind the scenes people like Mannix are able to control and observe the willing blindness of passive spectators, yet still feel isolated and unable to understand the greater meaning of it all. The  looming threat of the atomic age is also touched upon, and the shift from moving pictures to television across the country, that presented a huge dilemma for the industry itself – apocalyptic in its own way.

The cinematography from Roger Deakins, purported to be his final film shot on celluloid, is considerate of the bright and colorful display of 1950s Hollywood cinema, with the codes and conventions that consist within the cinematic language of each category making themselves apparent. As a testament to the decades long relationship Deakins has had with the Coens, it works to full effect, and one wonders if such a film could have been visually appealing were it to be shot digitally.

It’s very surprising to see Hollywood portrayed in this light, with many characters existing in the story operating as stand-ins for real life figures. Only in the aesthetic of a period piece could such truths become unearthed, and yet, it says a lot about where the Hollywood of today has been built upon. Obviously actors are no longer contracted to certain studios, but the politics occuring on the lot aren’t out of the realm of possibility either. As such, there is a huge amount of underlying subtext that make Hail, Caesar! prime for more than one viewing. While the narrative doesn’t feel cohesive by way of its episodic presentation, it is still very fun to experience, and manages to deconstruct the very nature of cinema to showcase how it creates meaning in all of our lives. Only the Coen Brothers could have a made such a loving tribute to the best era of Hollywood, that succeeds in portraying the side of it rarely seen on screen.

[star v=4]