Much as I usually enjoy the films of the Coen Brothers, I haven't been personally inspired to check out any of their work since BURN AFTER READING. But the trailer for HAIL, CAESAR! caught my interest immediately, and I was looking forward to a good old-fashioned screwball comedy set in "old school" Hollywood. And... I got the laughs I was hoping for, if not quite the film I was expecting.
Capitol Pictures is banking everything on their "prestige" Biblical epic (see title, but feel free to write in BEN-HUR), but that's just a small portion on the plate of nominal production chief (but in real life, all-purpose fix-it man) Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Around the same time that HAIL, CAESAR! star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and held for ransom by a group of visionary Communists, Mannix also has to work damage control for an Esther Williams-esque bathing beauty (Scarlett Johansson) facing a decidedly unwholesome single-mother scandal; find a last-second replacement for a rehabbing star AND distract a pair of twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton). Oh, and the whole scenario apparently takes place in forty-eight hours or less.
Unsurprisingly, pace isn't an issue here--but inevitably, some threads work better than others, and the faux Hollywood productions we get generous looks at throughout often upstage the 'main' stories they're meant to enhance. Nothing against Ms. Johansson (or Jonah Hill, who turns up as a key element of this subplot), but I didn't find this portion of the narrative interesting at all, pleasant as the individual vignettes and the elaborate synchronized swimming sequence were.
Clooney is dependably malleable and goofy as the binge-prone leading man (he loves to play the idiot for the Coens and was instrumental in getting HAIL, CAESAR! made in the first place), and his introduction to the "study group" holding him captive is one of the most consistently hilarious sequences.
But upstaging everything else is the plot featuring Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy superstar Hobie Doyle, who finds himself suddenly forced into a completely incompatible "high society" role for renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Their first moments on the set together rank with some of the funniest material the Coens have ever offered us ("If only it twere that simple"), and that's because none of it is at the expense of either character. It certainly isn't Doyle's fault that he's incapable of being Clark Gable, but he sincerely wants to do right by the studio that employs him. Nor is Laurentz at all off-base in his polite frustration. This is circumstantial comedy at its best, and the lack of contempt displayed here makes it effortless for one to root for the likable Doyle when called to do so. Oh, and Ehrenreich clearly does his own rope tricks (if not horseback handstands).
Brolin is fine as the fixer, but here's where the Coens fail to deliver convincingly--so much emphasis is placed on Mannix's Catholic guilt and his personal temptation of a one-way ticket to Easy Street, but there's never any doubt as to where his loyalties really lie and, hence, there's no suspense.
Nevertheless, HAIL, CAESAR! delivers plenty of laughs and more than earns the price of admission. In addition to the examples cited above, the film offers such gems as Mannix's meeting with several prominent heads of clergy (he wants to make sure that the religious content of the studio epic won't offend anybody, but the resulting theological debate is a riot); Frances McDormand's cameo as a dexterous (?) projectionist; and above all, the spot-on and laugh-out-loud "No Dames!" naval musical number (highlighting a game Channing Tatum and a grumpy bartender).
HAIL, CAESAR! doesn't hit every mark it aims at, but it's more than entertaining enough to give you a well-spent afternoon at the movies.
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