[Review] Hail, Caesar!

Hail Caesar 1

I can’t remember this many insane things taking place in such a short time since the unchecked train wreck of the Dude’s life in The Big Lebowski.

Hail, Caesar! is weird. It’s weird in that glorious, triumphant and stomach-twisting way which leaves me laughing hard enough that my voice cracks embarrassingly and I start gasping with a high-pitched whine. Hail, Caesar!, in short, is exactly the kind of weird I appreciate most in comedy. Who wants tired one-liners delivered by goofy actors at twenty misunderstandings a minute? Bring on Tilda Swinton playing two characters at once and surprise Soviet submarines!

I would say that Joel and Ethan Coen are up to their old tricks once more, but actually Hail, Caesar! is a departure from their usual flick. This in itself is a dangerous statement, because the brothers Coen have made a ridiculous variety of films from the bizarre Nicolas Cage-infused baby-heist Raising Arizona to the Depression-era musical Odyssey O Brother Where Art Thou?

Despite this wild variance, though, a common element of their collection is scenes of stylized, brutal violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino film. These are often introduced without warning and can transfix the watcher, open-mouthed, with their sheer bloody gratuity. In the opening scene of No Country for Old Men, for example, the film’s psychopath drives a steel bolt into someone’s head with a blast from an oxygen tank. In Fargo, of course, there is an iconic scene where dismembered body parts are fed messily into a wood-chipper.

But Hail, Caesar! has none of this. The film’s most violent act arrives in a scene when George Clooney is lightly slapped by his manager for being a dolt. This lack of violent acts makes it a solid deviation from their previous offerings — but it still retains the characteristic surrealness and high-flying absurdity which makes a Coen Brothers film, well… a Coen Brothers film.

I can’t remember this many insane things taking place in such a short time since the unchecked train wreck of the Dude’s life in The Big Lebowski. The script and humor also possess a bit of a sketch-comedy feeling: often, the film will wander onto the set of some Hollywood style or other and impress us with a big, bold and extremely irrelevant departure from the plot in the form of an extended dance number or a choreographed swimming routine.

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In this sense, the setting and the time period are largely to the film’s advantage. Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood in the 1950s, just as televisions are starting to be phased in and the crowd-pull of the silver screen is beginning to fade. Shooting for this year’s big production, the title track, is underway in Hollywood, and fictional star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, gets spirited away in the first ten minutes to a mysterious beach-front property. The rest of the film is spent looking for the movie star and following the antics of Josh Brolin, aka Eddie Mannix the Hollywood fixer.

The Coen Brothers clearly harbor a deep affection for this period in history, because they do their level best to conjure up the romance, intrigue and chain-smoking insouciance associated with the era. In one memorable scene they recreate perfectly the grim, shadowed threat of film noir classics, shooting a street with shadows so sharp and hat brims so thin you could cut your fingers on them.

I think something which needs to be particularly addressed is George Clooney’s presence in the movie. Clooney is not really a comic actor, historically appearing more in action flicks like Ocean’s Eleven and serious productions like Gravity. But in Hail, Caesar!, Clooney bumbles around in a Roman tribune’s outfit and displays a charming and very un-serious sense of humor, with his earnest and normally respectable face somehow amplifying the absurdity of his character. I like this side of Clooney, and while he’s played light-hearted roles like this in the past — mostly in other Coen productions — this is, for my money, his silliest appearance to date. And it’s great. George Clooney is the comic star of the show.

If you like Coen Brothers films, then you will like Hail, Caesar! Their insuppressible and energetic style shines through clearly, despite a conspicuous absence of violence. The jokes are funny, the actors are good, and the film will keep you laughing hard enough that you struggle to breathe.

And if you’ve never seen a Coen Brothers film? Hail, Caesar! is a great place to start.


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