Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar!

I think it's safe to say I'm a pretty die-hard fan of the Coen Brothers and a new film from them is always a cause for celebration. I love then in part because they seem to pretty much do what they want, moving from blood-soaked dramas, to light comedy, and picking up all sorts of other genres to play in along the way. They've had occasional misfires for sure - although I don't always agree with critical consensus about which films those misfires actually are - but even the Intolerable Cruelty's of this world I've found interesting and entertaining. This year we are back with farce after the excellent Inside Llwellyn Davis, alighting on the Hollywood of 1951, in Hail, Caesar! 

The first interesting thing to note about Hail, Caesar! is that, much like The Hudsucker Proxy or even O Brother, Where Art Thou?, its a film that wears it's central conceit on it's sleeve, which is that in a lot of ways it's a film that wouldn't have looked too out of place back in the period in which it's set. There is an artificial, whitewashed sheen to the world that the (heavily fictionalised) Eddie Mannix inhabits - the idealised home life, the generally goofball nature of threats throughout the film - which is only reinforced by the recreations of movies of the period that form the central set pieces. These set pieces manage to be both the films great strength, but also one of it's biggest flaws. 

The central problem with Hail, Caesar is this - it's essentially a series of sketches, rather than a coherent narrative movie. The central joy of Hail, Caesar! is that these sketches are all rather wonderful. On the varied sound stages under Mannix's control we have a biblical epic, a black-and-white drama of manners, a cowboy movie, a mermaid musical and Gene Kelly-esque song and dance movie. Each of these have lovingly recreated scenes (the Channing Tatum starring Bar Routine is fantastic) as well as their own unique behind-the-camera drama, and the Coen's indulge themselves shamelessly in letting their recreations run. In the end, I suspect your tolerance for the film will hinge on your enjoyment of those moments.

As you might expect from a Coens comedy the script is quick and witty, and gets good milage from a couple of scenes of characters simply debating. In one, a bunch of religious leaders debate Christ on screen, and in the other, The Hollywood Writers Communist Conspiracy attempt to recruit George Clooneys impressionable actor to their cause. This isn't a serious movie, nor making any attempt to be, and I loved it for it. It lacks the through lines of better farces, and in the end it doesn't really come together in any meaningful way; individual plots have individual resolutions, but that's about it. It feels like that is the intent - life goes on, and you just have to make peace with it much like Eddie has to, or leave and join Lockheed in the "real world".

I think I enjoyed the film more for it's individual moments than for it's overall quality, but those individual moments and performances are rather wonderful. There is a subset of Coen Fans who hugely prefer the dramas to the comedies and this certainly won't convert anyone on that score either. But as someone who looks forward to the Coen's regular trips to whimsy and farce I was thoroughly entertained by Hail, Caesar!, and look forward to be able to watch it again, to catch more of the loving detail I just know they've stuck in there.