Friday 31 May 2019

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

A Hollywood comedy, Hail, Caesar! is an homage to the heyday of the studio system, and just about holds together.

It's 1951 in Hollywood, and Capitol Pictures manager Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has a lot on his hands. The studio is filming a Biblical epic, but star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of communist writers, who demand a $100,000 ransom. Aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and not quite sure who the father is.

On the orders of the studio boss, singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is pressed into a starring role in a sophisticated comedy and struggles to follow instructions from director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Dancer/singer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is filming a navy-themed musical while potentially hiding some secrets. And all the time rival twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are circling the studio looking for nasty stories to publish.

Mannix is also trying to stop smoking, and is considering a lucrative offer to quit Hollywood and join the Lockheed corporation. He has to try and keep the kidnapping story away from the press as he arranges for the star's release, and find solutions to DeeAnna's potentially scandalous pregnancy and Hobie's incompetence.

With something different going on within every soundstage, Hail, Caesar! captures the insanity of a workplace where reality is make-believe. Produced, directed and written with a jovial spirit by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is an affectionate salute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a place where men controlled the plots points for both the movies and the stars.

The Coen's craft their love letter without resorting to sentimentality. The intention is to deliver fun laced with satire, and along the way the full range of genres popular in the era is skewered to good effect. De Mille-level historical epics, Esther Williams-style lavish swimming pool spectacles, B-level westerns, sparkling romantic comedies and raucous musicals are all weaved into the life Eddie Manx.

He somehow maintains his composure as a crisis erupts with every phone call. His workday consists of putting out fires or delaying their spread while his mind operates at 100 miles per hour to stay ahead of the next scandal, all while battling his cigarette addiction, lying to his wife and confessing (frequently) to his priest.

Within the madness the Coens find time to delve into the mythical communist infiltration of Hollywood, here represented by leftist writers incongruously hanging out at a lavish seaside villa raising funds for their cause by kidnapping Hollywood's biggest star. It does not take long for Baird Whitlock to fall for the eloquently explained communist drivel, in what could be a nod to the typical mental nimbleness of the on-screen talent.

Hail, Caesar! never takes itself seriously, a most appropriate stance for an industry trading in formulating fleeting fantasies.

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