At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Hail, Caesar! “2016”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Hail, Caesar! “2016”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Period Dark Comedy/Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Veronica Osorio, Emily Beecham, Heather Goldenhersh, Wayne Knight, Jonah Hill, Max Baker, Christopher Lambert, Geoffrey Cantor, Ian Blackman, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Alex Karpovsky, Greg Baldwin, Clancy Brown, Robert Picardo, Allan Havey, Natasha Bassett, John Bluthal, Dolph Lundgren, Robert Trebor, Michael Gambon/Runtime: 106 minutes

I think it’s safe to say dear reader that there are some directors in the land of movie magic who possess a rather distinct superpower of sorts that few of their peers can claim to have. That being that, no matter what it is, whenever they reveal that they have a new movie coming out, it immediately will capture my interest. Indeed I might know next to nothing about the movie in question, but if their name is on it then you can be sure that at some point I will most assuredly be giving that movie some of my money. The reason I bring this up to you dear reader is because, amongst the list of directors who I feel possess the aforementioned cinematic superpower, you will definitely see the names of Joel and Ethan Cohen respectively. This dynamic duo, in case you didn’t know, are the pair responsible for such gems including, but not limited to, 1984’s Blood Simple, Fargo from 1996, No Country for Old Men in 2007, The Big Lebowski in 1998, and of course their most iconic film ever 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy (I kid, I kid though I will argue that the movie definitely is better than a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes). Thus, in case the above collection of movies didn’t exactly spell it out on its own, this is a pair of delightfully eclectic directors who have given the world some of the more distinct cinematic gems over the past 3-4 decades. Yet, among the slices of cinema on their filmography there is one that I don’t think has gotten nearly as enough attention from the film going community in the 7 years since its release as perhaps it ought to. That slice of cinema, and incidentally the movie I am reviewing for you today dear reader, is 2016’s Hail, Caesar and I must say that I really do dig the heck out of this movie. To be sure, is it the best of the best that the Coens have ever seen fit to give audiences? Honestly that is definitely not the case with this movie, but then again determining what movie of theirs fits that particular slot is a challenge I will leave for you to unravel on your own. At the same time though, is this slice of cinema one that is an outright piece of trash that should just be left undiscovered at the bottom of the 5-dollar bin at your friendly neighborhood Walmart or Best Buy? Truthfully I wouldn’t say that either. Yes there are some issues to be found here, but when you have work both behind and especially in front of the camera that is this skilled to say nothing of genuinely magnificent fun I think it can be said that Hail, Caesar might not be the best from this iconic duo, but, much in the same vein as Steven Spielberg’s Hook from 1991, this is still a heck of a good time to be had be it your 1st or 101st time watching it.

The plot is as follows: Taking us all the way back in time to the long-ago decade known as the 1950s, this slice of cinema gets underway by introducing us to a man by the name of Eddie Mannix. A man who, among other things that are worthy of note about him, is someone whose career of choice is operating as the head of the physical production department at film studio Capitol Pictures. At least that’s what his job card and the lettering on his office door says dear reader. In actuality, Mr. Mannix is a skilled member of that distinct community known as “fixers”. A career with a key responsibility of ensuring that those who work on films for the studio, be they cast or crew, are kept out of the spotlight whenever they engage in behaviors that might not exactly be the most moral let alone legal in the world. As skilled as Mannix is at this given profession, it should also come as no surprise to learn that the sleaze and cover-up he has to engage in on a daily basis has really started to get to him to such an extent that, when our film opens, we learn that he is courting a very attractive offer from the Lockheed Corporation to come work for them. Unfortunately, as chaotic and hectic as his daily routine typically is, we see that this routine is about to get a heck of a lot crazier. This is because on the set of the studio’s big prestige picture of the year Hail, Caesar the movie’s main star, and kind of a blowhard if we’re being honest, Baird Whitlock finds himself being drugged and subsequently kidnapped by representatives for a group known simply as “The Future”. Thus, with a pair of rival gossip columnist sisters relentlessly hounding him, Hail Caesar’s shooting schedule in a state of perilous flux and a whole host of other issues including a pregnant actress whose wholesome image is on the line as a result, a Western actor struggling to transition over to a Broadway adaptation, and a song and dance man with his own issues, can our beleaguered and intrepid hero make it through yet another chaos-fueled day, get to the bottom of Baird Whitlock’s mysterious abduction, actually find the guy (hopefully alive), and keep the studio (to say nothing of his sanity) all in one piece? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..

Now right off the bat, it should be noted that the work being done behind the camera is no less than a masterclass in and out of itself. This starts with the fact that throughout the duration of their main character’s odyssey in this, the Coens will more often than not make the choice to brilliantly beam us out of the main narrative and place us feet first into a collection of almost vignette-like scenes that shine a spotlight on the comedic and ridiculous work being done behind the scenes on a number of ‘50s type movies that the studio is working on. Now for those of you who, like myself, I have no doubt that you will certainly enjoy the various throwbacks to cinema of that era which are on display here. Indeed there’s a lovely musical number with concurrent swimmers and an actress in a mermaid tail. We also get another moment in this with an audience adored Western performer named Hobie Doyle who may be skilled at getting rid of bad guys and stunts on horseback, but finds his toughest challenge in the form of having to actually act in an upper-tier style film and contend with a rather posh and subtly growing more impatient by the minute director in a scene that will make you at the very least chuckle. Finally, we see that this slice of cinema also manages to incorporate into the mix a rather distinct take on the kind of song and dance numbers that Gene Kelly made famous back in that era. To be sure, there may be those of you who wish the narrative was a bit more streamlined, but for everyone else I think the happiness and talent on display will win you over. We also see that the work done by the production design team does a superb job at not only conjuring up, but then lovingly adding a distinct degree of detail to a variety of locations both at the studio and outside the studio as well. In addition, we see that the work done by the cinematography department is then able to complement the production design team’s work by then beautifully showcasing these locales for us whilst also bathing them in light in such a way that this feels just as much like a film made in the Golden Age of movie magic as it is a tribute to them. Now it is worth noting that, besides the ones previously mentioned, there are quite a few other comedic bits in this movie. However, much like in some of their other movies, the snarky sense of humor that is extremely prevalent throughout is one that might fly right over the heads of some of you out there, but for those of you who find that they are able to tap into the Coens’ distinct comedic wavelength I promise you will find more than a fair bit of chuckles on display here.  Suffice it to say that there might be a few hiccups here and there, but when the work being done behind the camera is this passionately engaged in then who am I to quibble?

Of course, it should also be noted dear reader that the immense passion and enthusiasm on display is not merely limited to the work done by the various departments behind the camera. I say that because the work done in front of the camera is also top-tier in every sense of the word. This starts with Thanos ehhh Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix and he is terrific. Indeed Brolin has long been an actor I have enjoyed (Hollow Man anyone?) and here he is terrific at playing this guy who is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified babysitter to the various personalities at this studio and who has been starting to question if this job is really the best thing he could be doing from a variety of different perspectives not the least of which morally and/or legally only to, with this kidnapping situation, actually begin to realize that maybe it is. Suffice it to say that it’s a fantastic performance from one of the more underrated talents in the land of movie magic. We also get a wonderfully goofy performance from George Clooney in the role of Baird Whitlock. Yes Clooney is a great dramatic actor no question about it, but he also has terrific comedic chops as well and that is definitely the case whenever Clooney gets to work with the Coens, but especially here as we see that Clooney does a terrific job at playing this guy who might have some talent to his name, but is also a bit of a blowhard as well and who finds himself getting kidnapped by a rather unusual group of individuals only to find himself actually starting to develop a bit of acceptance for his captors’ distinct belief system. Besides Clooney we also get a winning turn here from the always fantastic Ralph Fiennes who manages to bring a terrific bit of the legendary Laurence Olivier to his role of posh film director Laurence Laurentz (and yes that is actually the guy’s name). Of course, I would also be amiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic job done by brilliant actress Tilda Swinton as not one, but two squabbling gossip columnists who also happen to be sisters. Indeed not only does Swinton make both of these characters distinct from the other, but she also does a wonderful job at having both play their own integral roles in the narrative as well. Far and away though the best performances in the film come from Alden Ehrenreich and Channing Tatum respectively. Indeed in regards to the former, we see that Ehrenreich does a hilarious job at playing this country-rooted cowpoke who is more comfortable with a lasso and a 6-shooter than in speaking formally or wearing a tux yet finds himself having to do just that in a scene that is undoubtedly a highlight of the entire movie. As for the latter, we see that Tatum does an absolutely outstanding job at playing a song and dance man who, as the movie goes on, we start to see that there might be more than meets the eye to. Indeed not only does Tatum do a great job performance wise, but when it comes to the song and dance number I must admit that I found myself pleasantly surprised. Not because the guy could dance, because girls have been telling me that since the first Step Up in 2006, but because he can also sing incredibly well too. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in wonderful, albeit more screentime limited, work from such talents as Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Wayne Knight, Clancy Brown, Fisher Stevens, Alison Pill, David Krumholtz, and Christopher Lambert (Connor McCloud from the original Highlander!!!) amongst others it’s clear that the Coens can still attract the talent to be sure, but that the collection of on-screen talent assembled here are all having an absolute blast with the material as well.

All in all and at the end of the day, I think it’s safe to say that Hail, Caesar is by no means a perfect slice of cinema. At the same time though, that is perfectly ok. Not only because very few movies are ever able to obtain that particular Xbox Live achievement, but because there is still quite a bit of fun to be had for those who are fans of this iconic and genuinely one-of-a-kind filmmaking duo. Indeed, I can’t really lie to you dear reader: I might not watch this one as much as something like say Blood Simple, Fargo, or (especially) No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, but I still do dig this movie quite a bit. Yes there are some issues to be found within this one that don’t usually pop up in a movie made by the Super Coen Brothers particularly with the fact that, although they manage to do fairly well with the immense juggling act on display when it comes to the narrative and the various subplots, every so often a plate does drop to the floor as it were. Even with that in mind though, there is also no denying that, like all of their other efforts, the Coens are putting their heart into making this movie the best that it can possibly be. Thus, when you also take into account the fact that the rest of the work done behind the camera does a magnificent job at making it feel like we have actually gone back in time to an actual movie studio in the 50s instead of just watching a tale about a fictional one as well as the work done by the fantastically chosen cast of players in front of the camera at making all of their characters feel more like three-dimensional human beings instead of mere archetypes there is one thing that becomes quite clear to me. That being that when it comes to a movie like this it might not be perfect, but if the Coens are at the helm then hang on tight because you are in for an entertaining and vibrant ride that is truly unlike any other. A fact that is true just as much here as it has been with their past efforts and one that we as movie goers can hope will be true for any future cinematic efforts that this distinct pair decide to take on together. Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Hail, Caesar “2016” a solid 3.5 out of 5.