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Friday, February 12, 2016

Hail, Caesar! (Release Date: 2-5-2016)

        There are supposedly two distinct types of Coen Brothers movies: the serious ones, and the fun ones. More so than any modern directors not named Steven Spielberg, Joel and Ethan's filmography alternates between the silly and the straight-faced at an almost perfect 1:1 ratio. Their dour noir debut, 1984's Blood Simple, was immediately followed with the wacky mania of Raising Arizona, just as Cannes film festival sensation Barton Fink made way for The Hudsucker Proxy's manic screwball energy, Oscar-winner Fargo begat legendary stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, and their most widely celebrated work to date, No Country For Old Men, served as a precursor to the laughter-inducing lark Burn After Reading. But where Spielberg refuses to allow intellect to spoil the fun of something like Jurassic Park, and finds little time or space for lightness of touch in either Lincoln or Saving Private Ryan, the Coens have always proven eager to let their paints mix. Humor and rumination are immovable mainstays of their every work, and while one is usually prioritized over the other, you don't have to squint to observe them working in concert with one another. As a matter of fact, you could just go buy a ticket to Hail, Caesar!

        A multi-layered foray into Hollywood of the 1950's, Hail, Caesar! portrays a hurried, harried 36 hours in the life of Eddie Mannox (Josh Brolin), a tinseltown 'fixer' employed by Capitol Pictures. Though his job takes him to the sets of snobby period pieces, aquatic pageants, and flamboyant musicals, Mannix's main concern is a swords-and-sandals epic from which the Coens' film takes its name, a tale of the Christ as witnessed from the prospective of a Roman soldier. The lavishly-budgeted production is thrown into chaos when its silver-screen superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped from the set, a ransom note demanding a tidy $10,000 left in his wake. Mannox goes about locating his captor, all while being summoned in innumerable directions to put out the myriad of fires that the studio's various departments continuously ignite with fervor and reckless abandon.

        Ludicrous occurrences and genre-hopping relish aside, there's something about the both the tone and pacing of Hail, Caeser! that immediately butts heads with the zippy, zany flick that its trailers seemed to promise. Unplanned pregnancy and domestic violence are both on the table in the film's early goings, not to mention a roundtable discussion featuring higher-ups from diverging Abrahamic faiths debating the ethics and accuracies of portraying Jesus on celluloid. There are too many spinning plates on hand to properly explore any of these notions, but the film at large isn't in a rush to get away from them either, relaying its story in a steady, mid-tempo time signature. Where the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Martin Scorsese (not to mention the Coens themselves) have fitted their walk-and-talk dramas and comedies with a break-neck speed, Caesar brings the RPMs way down, the flapping lips and moving feet progressing in pseudo-slow-motion. Much of the comedy is welcomely broad, but the proceedings always feel more earnest than urgent, collectively toying with some knotty ideas that only come into focus near the film's conclusion.

        Don't mistake this as a claim that Joel and Ethan are asleep at the wheel during the interim; the brothers may be driving at a cost-effective speed, but when it comes to the places they visit, no expenses are spared. Each of the aforementioned movies-within-the-movie is dazzlingly realized, exquisitely mounted, and deeply-steeped in affection for 'the old ways' of doing things, to the point where brazen satire and heartfelt homage somehow merge into one another. Production Designer Jess Gonchor, along with Set Decorator Nancy Haigh and Art Directors Cara Brower  and Dawn Swiderski, deserves endless praise for locating such a specific brand of lived-in artifice, while Mary Zophers may well be the front-runner for next year's Best Costume Design Oscar. The whole venture is immaculately tactile, a veritable cinematic playground featuring a slew of today's most respected actors behaving as if the bell just rang, and recess has finally begun.

        Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film studio from which the fictitious Capitol Pictures gains its inspiration, famously claimed to have "more stars than there are in heaven," a boast which the Coens seem determined to back up with their most famous cast to date. Brolin is captivating and surprisingly intense, and Clooney's wide-smiling imbecile proves perfectly in line with his previous Coen collaborations, but it's the rest of the cast that really pops. Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand are each outstanding in their miniature roles, while Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton ascend to the level of note-perfect with similarly bite-sized amounts of screen time. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich somehow manages to stand out amidst this bevy of Oscar nominees with a performance that would be both the film's funniest and most charming... if Channing Tatum wasn't here. His lone musical number is delightful enough to make time stand still, not to mention the unpredictable turn his character takes in the film's final act. For prolonged stretches, it feels like half of Hollywood is here to serve that great, glittering ideal that is entertainment.

        Their offerings combine to clarify the film's thesis without distracting from its meat-and-potatoes entertainment value, operating in tandem with rampant musings on religion, politics, media, and that blank space in the heart of man that the Coens have made a career out of exploring. Hail, Caesar! is a film about faith, and about service in the name of faith, a nebulous proposal that's always floating around the movie's margins, before you have a clue that it's even there. Each of its characters is dying at the alter of something, whether it be journalism, war, economic ideologies, public perception, or any of the aforementioned causes. They're all fighting for something they believe in, even if, as is frequently the case, they have only a fleeting grasp on what exactly that is. Staring down into that infinite black hole that is purpose has always been at the forefront of the Coens' movies, each with a slightly different shade than the next. Hail, Caesar! is no different, and while ignoring its theological wrestlings in favor of its off-kilter joke telling is entirely possible, I for one take umbrage with the 'minor Coens' tag with which it's been saddled. The film is gorgeous, funny, and stuffed to the brim with serotonin-triggering performances. It just so happens that when you're the Coens, even a rollicking comedy is worthy of deep, soul-searching analysis.

Grade: A

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