Channeling the round-about essence of their government conspiracy goof Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers have returned to their oddball roots with a glimpse into cinema’s long-forgotten past. Hail, Caesar! is an enjoyably unnecessary homage to old-school Hollywood, both in satire and spirit, featuring quite possibly the most important Channing Tatum role that will ever exist.
It should be noted that small spells of tedium do set in as the Coens extend verbal gags a bit longer than their lifespan, but, overall, there’s enough fast-talking, punchy problem solving in the film to make it worth the price of admission. Credit the steadfast cast, headed by Hollywood’s hottest talents, many of whom keep the laughs coming through a periodic Coen picture that, while spunky, lacks their signature deadpan obscurity.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a 1950s studio “fixer” who oversees daily production at California’s Capital Pictures. The company’s biggest prestige piece, Hail, Caesar!, is almost in the can, but with only a few scenes left, the film’s star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), vanishes. Finding a missing star is all in a day’s work for Mannix, but he’s still got a plate full of issues besides the M.I.A Whitlock. In addition, starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) needs to avoid a single-mother PR nightmare, cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is ruining Laurence Laurentz’s (Ralph Fiennes) latest drama, and two nosy journalists (sisters played by Tilda Swinton) are threatening to leak huge stories. It’s enough to drive a man mad, but Mannix is up to the task. Or, so he hopes…
Like any Coen brothers movie, there’s far more to this story than meets the eye. Whitlock isn’t just missing. He’s been kidnapped by Communist screenwriters who pollute his mind with teachings from a book called the Kapital. Evidently, it’d be too simple if Whitlock was kidnapped for a measly ransom, so some Cold War paranoia is injected into a Hollywood mystery that’s already boasting a strange storyline. And DeeAnna Moran’s pregnancy drama? Well, Mannix’s big fix is to have DeAnna publically adopt her own child after signing it away in private, so it appears that DeeAnna simply had a case of baby fever that needed to be cured. Mannix’s solutions are always complicated, somewhat genius, and privy to causing tension in inadvertently pleasing ways, which plays right into Brolin’s confidently intense performance.
But, as already stated, the standout performer here is Tatum. Playing Burt Gurney, a fresh-faced Fred Astaire type, the actor dances his way into our hearts while singing about the sexual struggles a sailor faces at sea. Watching him prance around is like poetry in motion, as he commands the spotlight through speedy, fleet footwork, like a chiseled angel dancing upon weightless clouds. He’s an absolute delight, and it’s clear the actor is meant for this type of sing-songy role, but that’s not even half of Gurney’s intrigue. Eventually, the star gets involved in Whitlock’s Communist kidnapping, and we’re treated to an almost Wes Anderson-esque reality featuring Tatum, an adorable dog, and a submarine. That’s all you need to know. See Hail, Caesar! for Channing Tatum, and thank me later.
Then again, any exchanges between Doyle and Laurentz are equally memorable, as Doyle finds himself completely outmatched by Laurentz’s enchanting sophistication. Doyle is a Western genre legend, speaking through horseback stunts and guitar melodies, but Laurentz’s Merrily We Dance demands brooding drama. Doyle does his best, but his hickish accent can’t quite pronounce Laurentz’s high-society dialogue. Thus begins a uproarious back-and-forth as Doyle’s drawl massacres one single line that Laurentz repeats with dashing regality, running with a linguistic joke that pays off tenfold come the fake film’s approved scene. When the Coens are on, these are the caliber gags that unite period cinema with characteristic pleasures.
Yet not all scenes are of the highest order, especially those comprising a few Communist pow-wows that stumble through prose about how society exists as one functioning body. While the sight of George Clooney grasping two finger sandwiches while still in a Roman costume strikes a quick smirk, a lifeless atmosphere brings the room’s demeanor down. More than once, Hail, Caesar! feels forcibly restrained by an era-based mentality, whether it be a misfired innuendo or untrimmed script fat. While other Coen pictures fly by, this magical stage production feels every minute of its 100 minute runtime, for better (more Channing Tatum please!) or worse.
Whether the tale be necessary or not, Hail, Caesar! does grant the Coens plenty of freedom to relive the 1950s, and boy do they love it. While simultaneously poking fun at Hollywood’s stranglehold on culture, lavish musical numbers and aquatic ballets pay tribute to more choreographed productions of yesteryear. Tatum’s barroom serenade is no small feat, nor is Johansson’s mermaid ballet. Ethan and Joel Coen’s pageantry lends itself to how Hail, Caesar! is filmed on sound stages instead of natural locations, much like the fabricated productions under the care of Eddie Mannix. Like I said, the Coens pay their respects both through light-hearted mockery and mirroring reenactments, blending buffoonery into narrative.
Hail, Caesar! certainly isn’t the Coens at their best, but instead their “pretty alright-est” – and that’s damn fine enough. Movies like The Big Lebowski have a strong, supportive backbone, whereas this ’50s kidnapping caper feels more like an actor who slaps on a pretty face for nothing but show. Maybe that’s intentional, to truly embrace a far-back reality, but in today’s world, such schmaltzy dramatics lack the same simple-minded pleasure.
Then again, Channing Tatum absolutely delights, so every other critique I might still voice is completely moot. Just go, soak in the C-Tates, and leave a tad bit merrier than you entered.
Hail, Caesar!? More like "Hail, Channing!" - am I right?