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Movie Review: "Hail, Caeser!" Is a Cynical But Loving Tribute to Classic Hollywood

Reviewed by Paul and Patrick Gibbs

Hail, Caesar! - 3 out of 5
Hail, Caeser!
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes,  Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johanson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Rated PG-13 (vulgarity, adult themes)

As brothers/filmmakers with a somewhat odd and subversive sense of humor, Joel and Ethan Coen are superheroes to us. But it's never easy to review a Coen brothers film. Like many auteurs, their creative vision is so unique that it has become almost a subgenre unto itself. But unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, whose nihilistic violence and pop culture worship creates a familiar tone to all of his film, the Coens have a broad range that makes it difficult to nail down what exactly is the feel of a Coen film. They have their own voice, but they use it to sing far more than one note. Nevertheless, that note is so distinctively Coen that, while their sensibilities suit us very well, the most common appraisal we give of a Coen film to others is "If you're not a Coen fan you'll probably have a hard time getting into it."

While their latest film, Hail, Caesar!  fits more into the category of comedies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? than to grittier and more dramatic fare like Fargo or No Country For Old Men, it's not quite in the same category. Hail, Ceasar! is funny, but it doesn't get the kind of constant laughs that O, Brother or The Big Lebowski did, and it doesn't really seem to be trying to. Above all else, it seems intended to create a portrait of golden age Hollywood both on and off screen, one that at once captures the magic of the movies and the sordid drama behind the scenes, and is simultaneously cynical and loving about both.

Josh Brolin, a member of the Coen Repertory Company since No Country For Old Men, plays the lead role of Eddie Mannix, a "fixer" for fictional Capitol Pictures in post World War II Hollywood. Eddie is responsible for dealing with the vast array of daily crises which plague production, including:

- Director Laurence Lorentz' (Ralph Fiennes)  fury at being forced to turn cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a suave and sophisticated leading man in the drawing room comedy Merrily We Dance.

- Beloved Hollywood sweetheart DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) needing a husband to avoid the bad publicity of having an out of wedlock child.

- Being hounded by sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) about a reported scandal involving superstar Baird Whitlock's first film.

-Whitlock himself (George Clooney) being kidnapped off the set of the studio's prestige biblical epic, Hail, Casear - A Tale of the Christ.

Meanwhile, at the same time that Eddie is dealing with all of this, he's being courted for a cushy, well-paying job at Lockheed. Will he leave Hollywood behind?

A film with this many diverging plot elements could easily feel disjointed and suffer for varying quality from Story A to Story B, but the Coens and their stellar cast keep things moving and ensure that each subplot is engaging (even if the only one of the characters besides Mannix who seems like a decent guy is Hobie). Every one of the major stars blends perfectly into both the time period and the surreal style of a Coen comedy, and the film within a film sequences are real highlights, giving the Coens and genius cinematographer Roger Deakins a chance to flawless recreate the look of everything from Ben-Hur to a Roy Rogers cowboy musical. Clooney and Tatum are outstanding, with Tatum hitting his song and dance number (A Gene Kelly-esque tap dance to a song called "No Dames") out of the park, and Clooney giving us both the self-centered buffoon we expect from him in a Coen film, and a pitch perfect recreation of the heightened "epic" acting style of a Charlton Heston or Richard Burton. One of the real strengths of the film is that the movie sequences tow the line between homage and parody so perfectly. There's just enough comic exaggeration there to make it funny, but they're getting all of these styles and genres right and showing them a surprising level of respect. Clooney's final monologue at the foot of the cross is both cheesy and strangely moving until it reaches its comic climax, and Tatum doesn't just fake the dancing well enough, he dazzles and shows that he could have been a major star of light musical comedies back in the day.

If the film disappoints in any way, it's the aforementioned failure to provide the laugh a minute ratio we expect. But it's consistently engaging and entertaining, and some sequences are hilarious, such as Lorentz struggling to feed Hobie a line reading or Eddie meeting with an interfaith council to ensure the Hail, Caesar script is sufficiently respectful to all beliefs (Robert Picardo steals the film in his cameo as a cantankerous Rabbi). And the strange mix of weariness and reverence both Eddie and the film itself show for the craziness of Hollywood is surprisingly thoughtful, making the film something of an rumination on whether Hollywood or the movies really matter, and what they mean to us. Brolin is a very important part of making the film work, and he gives yet another strong performance which shows that the oldest Goonie has grown up to become an excellent actor with an impressive range. He carries the film effortlessly.

In then end, Hail, Caesar! doesn't rank with the Coen's best films, and it may turn out to be just too bizarre for some  (a line probably written in reviews of every Coen movie) . But it's a more than solid entry in their filmography, and for fans of both the Coen Brothers and old Hollywood, it's a must-see

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