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There is nothing that Joel and Ethan Coen cannot do. Since the mid-1980s, they’ve made a total of 17 films, and not a single one is like the last – with the filmmakers dabbling in tones of every shade and dissolving genre boundaries. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is yet another perfect example of the filmmakers’ eclectic palette, this time taking audiences on a trip through time for a wacky spell in 1950s Hollywood, and while it’s not as narratively strong as most of the Coens’ other great works, there’s a good chance we’ll be calling it one of the funniest movies of 2016 come December.
Leading what can only be called a cavalcade of stars is Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix – a proud-yet-stressed Hollywood fixer who works day and night to make sure that his studio, Capitol Pictures, is insulated and protected from all of the various naughty hijinks perpetrated by contracted filmmakers and stars. While he navigates from production to production, the beginning of the story has him centering his attention on Hail, Caesar!, a sword-and-sandals epic starring one of the world’s most popular leading men: Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). At first, Mannix's greatest stress involving the film will just be dealing with audiences of faith and the depiction and nature of Jesus Christ – but that’s before it’s discovered that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a group calling itself “The Future.”
Solving this abduction problem without word getting out would be a big enough problem by itself for any person, but it’s really just one ball Mannix finds himself juggling between his trips to the confessional at this local church. His attempts to make a dramatic actor out of a singing cowboy star named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) earns the extreme ire of one of the studio’s premiere directors, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); the beautiful actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is; and the press is constantly hounding him for a story. Eddie serves a higher power at the studio, spends days taking on the sins of those around him, and goes home at night wondering if it’s all worth it when he can easily make more and do less somewhere else.
If you’re wondering how one film could possibly balance all of those different plot lines and more, then you’ve essentially stumbled on to the only real key issue with Hail, Caesar! Tracing Eddie through a wide variety of conflicts is clearly necessary in portraying the hilariously chaotic nature of his work (not to mention lend more support to the larger Jesus allegory), but the problems comes in weighing each of them. We spend a lot of time watching the protagonist fight certain battles, while others are resolved fairly quickly, and it’s an imbalance that makes some sequences feel ancillary and unnecessary – funny as they may be. By the end, it feels a good deal more scattershot than it should; additionally hurt by the way characters begin to fall away as the story draws to a close.
Messy as things may get, the upside is that the Coen brothers are comedic geniuses (proven time and time again), and Hail, Caesar! will at times leave you laughing until you cry. Of course, this is where having an incredibly talented ensemble cast comes in handy. George Clooney once again plays a delightful idiot who has no idea exactly how in-over-his-head he really is; Scarlett Johansson is hilarious armed with a ridiculous over-the-top Brooklyn accent and a blunt attitude; and Ralph Fiennes once again demonstrates his sharp, articulate dramatic skills can come in handy generating laughs when posed against extreme idiocy. Even playing a character that is largely the straight man in the story, Josh Brolin is able to find a few wonderful quirks that give Eddie Mannix an interesting frazzled-yet-powerful performance, naturally supported by all the craziness he encounters throughout the film.
As you probably could have anticipated, there isn’t a single bad performance in Hail, Caesar! - though special credit must be given to the actor whom nobody could have predicted would wind up stealing the show from such an amazing crew of A-listers: Alden Ehrenreich. Hobie Doyle is a special kind of country-fried bumpkin, and while it’s sidesplitting to watch him in his natural singing cowboy element - pulling off all kinds of rodeo stunts to save the girl and showing off his lasso skills whenever opportune –it’s when he’s dropped into the romantic period drama Merrily We Dance that the hilarity truly ensues (particularly when playing off of Ralph Fiennes’ increasingly frustrated Laurence Laurentz). It’s the kind of brilliantly funny character that only the Coen brothers could create, and going forward, Hobie Doyle will be remembered in the same spirit of H.I. McDunnough, Ulysses Everett McGill, and The Dude.
On beyond the straight-up fun and weirdness that becomes available setting a film in 1950s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is a wonderful movie from Joel and Ethan Coen if not only because of the perfect way that it plays to their aforementioned eclectic sensibilities and allows them to play in a wide variety of different genres at once. The feature reunites the writing/directing duo with cinematography legend and genius Roger Deakins, and together, the men create sequences unlike anything we’ve ever seen from the filmmakers – be it Channing Tatum leading a bunch of sailors in a song-and-dance routine regretting the lack of dames at sea; or Scarlett Johansson swimming around as a mermaid (or “wearing a fish ass,” as she puts it) in a fantastical choreographed underwater adventure. It’s rare that we get to see movies that are as beautiful as they are funny, but then, nobody does it quite like the Coens.
Like most of the Coen brothers’ comedies, I fully expect Hail, Caesar! to age like a fine wine. Notable as the various issues with the plot are on first viewing, they’re also the kind that fade to the background upon multiple viewings as more and more appreciation is felt for all of the other incredible gifts that the film has to offer. It’s perhaps not quite top-tier Coens, but there surely is a great deal of what they tend to do best.