Hail Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ latest effort, works as both an affectionate homage to 1950s movie magic, as well as a nostalgic, if mildly critical look at major studio moviemaking efficiency.
While George Clooney is perhaps the biggest name in the ads, the film belongs to Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a production head and ‘fixer’ for, one who seems to spend more time keeping the various stars out of trouble than addressing issues of quality (the real-life Mannix functioned in much the same way). As portrayed by Brolin, Mannix wrestles with issues both spiritual and professional (as in whether to take that lucrative offer from Lockheed) as he juggles a number of equally pressing problems. These include the disappearance of major star Clooney from the set of the studio’s make or break biblical epic; Scarlett Johansson as a swim star not unlike Esther Williams who, out of the pool, is in hot water due to an unexpected “bump”—and not in her popularity; and Alden Ehrenreich as a Western star (think the looks of Audie Murphy and the voice of Pat Buttram) who has been shoehorned into a drawing room comedy—much to the chagrin of director Ralph Fiennes.
This all gives the Coens plenty of time to celebrate the movie genres so popular in the 1950s, as well as address of the social and political concerns, such as the advent of television, the power of the censors, and the Communist threat. The serious themes however, are reined in by the spirit of “play” that is prevalent throughout. A discussion among various religious leaders as to the content of Clooney’s Biblical epic gives way to insults and pronouncements (“God is a bachelor–and he’s angry!”); a ransom drop gives way to an uproarious musical number led by a spirited Channing Tatum in sailor attire; in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, a patient but increasingly flustered Fiennes tries to elicit proper line readings from the earnest, but befuddled Ehrenreich. Scenes like this are sprinkled throughout Hail Caesar!, making it an extremely likable throwback not only to 1950s filmmaking but also the Coens’ earlier, ebullient flights of fancy like The Hudsucker Proxy.
I didn’t review Bridge of Spies or The Big Short when they were first released, but if you haven’t gotten around to them, they are both well worth your time. The Cold War era Bridge of Spies has lawyer Tom Hanks negotiating the exchange of captured pilot Francis Powers with convicted Russian spy Rudolf Abel (a very good Mark Rylance). It’s a tense, well-paced, old-fashioned thriller that maintains the suspense even as one may already know the outcome. The same goes for The Big Short, a sharp, dark comic look at the banking and housing collapse, wherein savvy financial players (portrayed by, among others, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) knew the “end” was coming and took risky steps to parlay that knowledge into personal gain. It’s fast-paced, intelligent, penetrating, funny (especially the use of celebrity interpreters of that labyrinth known as high finance); it perversely succeeds in given the viewer a rooting interest in the protagonists’ success—even though we know what the disaster that will result.