Friday, January 6, 2017

Hail, Ceasar!

Would that it were so simple.

While reflecting on the movies I saw in 2016, I realized I'd completely forgotten that I'd seen the Cohen brothers' Hail, Caesar! back in February.  Then I couldn't remember if I loved it or if I was disappointed in it.  Turns out it was a little of both.  It may not be the best film the Cohens have produced, but might just be the one that they've injected the most love into.  The experience is akin to being taken on a tour of a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, lingering on each set long enough to see the glamour and longer still to see the behind-the-scenes ugliness.  It's overflowing with talent and charm, but ultimately, something lacks about Hail, Caesar!   We expect a Cohen brothers movie to take us on a wild trip, for the story to be air-tight, and for the look and dialogue to be dripping with style.  The film has the last part down pat, but it struggles to gel into a cohesive whole, and so the end result leaves one feeling a bit cold.

It's really too often.  You're not that bad.

In Hollywood, California, 1951, Eddie Manix (Josh Brolin) works as a "fixer."   It's his job to make sure that the undesirable and scandalous behavior of Capitol Pictures stars is kept out of the press. This is no easy feat, with actresses like DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) getting pregnant out of wedlock and journalists like the Thacker sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton) breathing down Manix's neck.  Meanwhile, actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) of a major production called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is kidnapped by a communist group calling themselves "The Future," demanding $100,000 for his release.  Along with this craziness, we are witness to the likes of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a Western star who is being shoehorned into a period drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a musical comedy star who gets mixed up in the Whitlock kidnapping.  This is all accompanied by outstanding musical numbers, gorgeous nostalgic cinematography, and great actors exchanging entertaining dialogue.

It's part of the job.

So what in God's name is my problem with this movie?  Even typing out that description got me excited to watch the it again.  Without going into specifics, the plotting is weak.  The story is barely starting to come together after tons of exposition and setup, and where does it get us?  Kind of a thud of an ending.  It's such a shame, because brimming beneath this good movie is a fucking great one the likes of which could have rivaled The Big Lebowski for best Cohen brothers comedy.  But the end result is just nowhere near that, and I'm aware that this kind of critiquing is just plain unfair.  All the pieces are there, but they wander around aimlessly and never come together in a satisfying way.

Someone's calling from the future?

Hail, Caesar! is a straightforward film that both honors Old Hollywood films while satirizing its practices ("owning" actors, shuffling them around in different roles they aren't suited for, and working diligently to cover up their seedy personal lives).  The way the film indulges in its faux movie scenes is done so lovingly and honestly that I wished I could see an entire movie based around each one.  The choreography, camerawork, and editing that lets us really see the dancing the way a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movie does.   I love the way the film takes place in its own world. There aren't any mentions of "real" actors, directors, or even studios; everything is self-contained, yet characteristic of the times.

The cast is all-around excellent.  While Brolin carries the film with ease, my favorite dynamics are between Fiennes and Ehrenreich, who are clearly having so much fun playing two characters forced to work together, knowing they can't work together, but just being so damned polite and earnest with each other to try and make it all work.  I'd watch a whole movie about these two.  In fact, any one of the subplots could have been expanded into their own, fully fleshed-out stories and fared much better.  Poor Jonah Hill, for all his hype in the advertising, is only in one major scene.  I can forgive it all though, for Hail, Caesar! looks absolutely fantastic.  Shooting on actual film rather than digitally lends the cinematography richness and color that helps transport us back to the '50s, in addition to just looking flat-out gorgeous.

Go out there and be a star.

There's great value in Hail, Caesar!  It comes from the crew's commitment to making something that a general audience may not necessarily appreciate, but that film fans will absolutely gush over.  And speaking as a film fan, I can't help but be grateful that it exists at all, never mind that it has moments of genuine brilliance.  But as a movie, its story disappoints, its pace is leisurely to a fault, and while the characters have outstanding introductions, they aren't as well-developed as they should be.  This is sort of an overlooked gem when it comes to 2016 movies, but I'm not going to cry foul over that.  I paid to see a passion project, and that's what I got.  Other passion projects by less talented filmmakers may have turned out better in the past, but they've certainly turned out worse.