Coen brothers recreate some unwelcome period detailMovie Review Thursday, February 4th, 2016
While I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I must acknowledge that they make some odd decisions that produce some ambiguous if not totally perplexing moments: The off-screen death of a major character in No Country for Old Men, the tornado that ends A Serious Man, the lack of any plot in Inside Llewyn Davis and pretty much all of The Big Lebowski. Usually, these weird scenes are aesthetically so interesting or so funny or, after some thought, thematically satisfying that the Coens get away with them, and they often end up being the most iconic parts of the films. But it doesn’t always work that way. Maybe I need a few months to think about Hail, Caesar! but right now, the over-stuffed incoherence and very odd political choices in the film don’t work. It’s rather unfortunate, too, because the Coens put together a fantastic cast and crafted a dozen or so near-genius scenes in Hail, Caesar! – including Channing Tatum in a nearly epic song-and-dance number – but it would have been nice to see they serve some purpose.
The film takes place over 28 hours in the life of 1950s movies producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who spends his days fixing problems like last minute casting choices, pregnant single starlets and paying ransoms for kidnapped actors. Mannix was a real person (though he worked at MGM, not the film’s fictional Capitol Pictures) but no one else in the film is. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a slow-talking and sweet cowboy singer who Mannix casts in a prestige musical directed by the effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is a crass star of synchronized swimming spectacles who becomes pregnant without a husband. And pampered, somewhat clueless Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is starring in a religious spectacle about a Roman soldier who has an epiphany during Christ’s crucifixion when he is kidnapped and held ransom by a group of bitter Communist screenwriters.
Mannix must solve the studio’s problems while trying to quit smoking and decide whether to take a cushy, much less challenging job at Lockheed. Most of the scenes are speedy and full of quick, snarky, period-inflected dialogue, but some of the plots are much more interesting than others. After DeeAnna Moran transforms from a classy bathing beauty into her true, if stereotypically low-class, self, her scenes aren’t terribly remarkable (and, worse, an event described as rather fun, if not hilarious, happens off-screen.) Hobie Doyle is almost absurdly charming in his difficulty in transitioning into a tuxedo-clad song-and-dance man, but after the initial fish-out-water moment, he’s shoe-horned into scenes where he doesn’t seem to belong. Baird Whitlock’s communist kidnapping is the most entertaining plot, mostly because the great absurdity of Clooney’s dopey and vapid Whitlock learning about the plight of the workers and the means of production from a team of earnest and angry screenwriters.
I kept hoping that everything would somehow tie together and Coen would develop some characters aside from Mannix. Mannix is the only one who has an interior life, but the key traist the Coens give him are duty and guilt. (The real Mannix was much more intriguing and complicated.) Doyle approaches some depth and then he’s pulled into saving Whitlock, for no good dramatic reason. Moran is a stick figure. And most frustrating to me, the gay critic, was how the homosexuality of one character is deeply tied to his ethic-less communism, the homosexuality of another is expressed through stereotypical speech and him being a sexual predator, and the bisexuality of a third is a deep, shameful secret Mannix is trying to keep through the whole film. Using gay men in 1950s Hollywood as punchlines, dirty secrets and evidence of evil is not the kind of period detail the Coens should be recreating.
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich
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