Thursday, February 25, 2016

Would that It Were All So Simple

At least half of the Coen brothers' movies are set sometime during the 1920s-1960s and all of their films take place in America. The brothers are among the brightest talents to emerge from American independent cinema in the 1980s. Their diligence resulted in the back-to-back independently produced hits Fargo (1996, Coen brothers) and The Big Lebowski (1998) securing their futures with the freedom to continue working on projects of their own choice.

I've learned that some Coen brothers movies stay with me. Barton Fink (1991, Coen), Fargo (1996 Coen), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, Coen), No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen), and A Serious Man (2009, Coen) for example, are what I call the heavy ones. They're dark, sure, but they also all open with angst and a foreboding, ominous, dark moral storm already brewing that never lets up.

But I've also learned that my response and relationship to their heavy ones doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of their lighter work.


The setting of Hail, Caear! (2016, Coen) is what is most important about it. 1950s Hollywood connotes myths, rumors, and gossip about stars, communism, sex, drugs, and all sorts of lurid pulp fodder--pretty much the dramatic elements of every James Ellroy novel. But we also have novels like Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon, and What Makes Sammy Run? that provide similar noir tones to the fatal peril of Hollywood's lure. The point is there's a lot about that time we'll never know.

But in the hands of the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a well-executed love letter to Hollywood studio filmmaking of the classical era. And the reality of technology's pace is hard to ignore. The first sound movie was 1927 and by the mid 50s, when Hail, Caesar! takes place, it is already the end of the studio era. So short. In addition Hail, Caesar! could likely be the last movie the Coens or Roger Deakins shoot on film.

Like the fake trailers from Grindhouse (2007, Rodriguez/Tarantino) or Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller), the movies-within-the-movie are the best part of Hail, Caesar! From the opening footage of Hail, Caesar! (the movie-within-the-movie not the movie itself) we get the thrill of knowing we're watching parody, knowing we'll only be watching a few moments of any given movie, yet still suspended in a mixture of nostalgia, recognition, awe, and contempt that that's what people actually watch.

Among the coincidental similarities in the movie, we have BAIRD WHITLOCK (George Clooney) playing a Roman politician; with the "Caesar" hairdo, we recall Clooney's breakout in ER with, what else, the "Caesar" hairdo. The dancing sailor played by Channing Tatum obviously isn't a far stretch from Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh). And the Esther Williams footage is all about Williams' star status, so Johansson is perfect casting.

Along with the footage of the Roman epic, the aquatic number performed by Scarlett Johansson was breathtaking, fun, impressive and the height of how high the success of Hollywood's studio system soared. Johansson swims in an underwater tank, air bubbles from her breathing, hair and makeup to the nines, in a body of water where a mechanical whale emerges in the center of Busby Berkeley-style synchronized swimming rings of female dancers. The spout sprouts a geyser rising and rising until Johansson is revealed atop its very peak, to gracefully dive down below. As she's underwater the camera moves in to be close on her perfect face as it arises, every hair in place, her make-up immaculate and unsmirched.

Tatum's Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen style  barroom dance number with all the sailors was too much. The Coens showcase so much of what still makes these old movies so magical.

While Hail, Caesar! may at times feel episodic, I think it only enhances the entertainment value of the movie. We want to just walk around the studio lot, that's why we came. The plot feels like a throwaway, kind of like Burn After Reading (2009, Coen). It's not really important what happens to MANNIX (Josh Brolin). Mannix is our entrance into the day to day chaos of what goes on behind and in front of the scenes. Hail, Caesar!'s ingenious ending makes it clear that this is just another week in Mannix's life, and it might not even be the craziest he'll deal with, not by a longshot. Mannix is also a great counterpart to the manic delirium of Hail, Caesar!'s pace. He's a pragmatist. And what a funny detail with him and his only apparent vice: he's quit smoking and when he finally goes to confession he admits to having a couple of cigarettes.

Last word on the cast, Ralph Fiennes as director LAURENCE LAURENTZ steals the show. As the gentleman director, Fiennes finesses the dialogue and I don't know who he's supposed to be, if anyone, but I'm guessing Ernst Lubitsch. For such a short amount of screen-time, Laurentz brings more comedy than I could have ever expected.

So aside from the macguffin conspiracy thread, Hail, Caesar! is escapist entertainment of the classic variety. Sure it's light, a diversion. And sure sometimes I wonder if that makes a movie a failure. But this time I say not. Hail, Caesar! is an excellent comedy, and one with wit, insight, and a genuine love of its subject.

--Dregs

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