The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"HAIL, CAESAR!"

Hail, Caesar!

All Joel and Ethan Coen movies are comedies to one degree or another. They range from dark-and-quirky (Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men) to serious-but-eccentric (Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis), to over-the-top loony (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski). Their latest, Hail Caesar! falls squarely into that final category. This is an old Hollywood tale as only they could tell it. Like many of their pictures, it probably needs to be seen more than once to fully “get” the point, but that quality is part of what makes any Coen Brothers movie so special.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” at a Hollywood studio. He makes certain that all the stars are in line, and that twin sister gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton) don't dig up any dirt. Among those Eddie is responsible for are pregnant aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), song-and-dance sensation Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), and cowboy comedy leading man Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is awkwardly making his debut in a “prestige” picture. But Eddie's biggest problem to deal with is the kidnapping of actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) right before he's scheduled to film the big climax of an expensive religious epic.

Hail, Caesar! is another Coen Brothers movie to operate on multiple levels simultaneously. On the surface, it's a wacky ode to the Hollywood studio system of days gone by. Many of the scenes are designed primarily so the filmmakers can put their own unique spin on classic genres. There's a massive Esther Williams-type musical number that manages to be even more lush and dreamy than the real thing. Later, Tatum gets to do a full-on Gene Kelly-esque tap dance sequence that tosses in hints of contemporary sexuality. The Coens' take on old cowpoke comedies, meanwhile, is one of the film's high points.

The kind of people who worked in and around studios are lampooned, as well. Frances McDormand gets a hilarious cameo as an overly efficient editor, while Ralph Fiennes plays a Douglas Sirk-ish director struggling to get Hobie to feel at home in a picture that is way outside his comfort zone. If you love movies from the '40s and '50s, you'll see the affection buried within the Coens' often uproarious parody of the on- and off-screen cinematic world at that time.

On a deeper level, Hail, Caesar! looks at the difference between the idealism that Hollywood sold – and continues to sell – audiences and the imperfect realities that are more accurate. This plays out primarily in the story involving Whitlock, who discovers that his captors are more ideologically than physically dangerous. He finds himself susceptible to their influence. Why? Because he's an actor, very used to investing in selling fantasies. Someone tells him what to do, and he does it. Hobie's subplot similarly addresses the theme. The young actor is right at home riding horses and plucking a guitar. When dropped into the middle of a more ambitious, artful movie, he scrambles to find his footing. Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! seems to say, tricks us into believing that life is easier than it really is, and that is both unhealthy and completely necessary.

All the performances here are delightful. Many of the actors have worked with the Coens before, so they understand just how to deliver their distinct brand of dialogue. Often times, the best and funniest moments are the ones that are mere detours, with little or no bearing on anything else (McDormand's scene being a prime example). There are points where Hail, Caesar! stops for some bit of weird comedy that doesn't advance the plot, but does add a dose of flavor.

While the film can seem scattershot at times, it really isn't. Joel and Ethan Coen have worked in the Hollywood system long enough now to have developed a wonderfully skewed perspective on it. And again, repeat viewings will likely show how the disparate elements are actually woven together with great thought. Hail, Caesar! is about how wonderful Hollywood is and how horrible it is. Wonderful because it provides hope and entertainment to so many, horrible because the people working to sell us these idealistic fantasies are at least as screwed up as we are, if not more.

( 1/2 out of four)


Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.


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