Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hail, Caesar! - Lots of Context, But Little Text

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Aiden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Color. U.S.A. 106 minutes. Comedy

The 1950s saw Hollywood in turmoil. The arrival of television had forced it to make fare that audiences couldn’t find on the box in their living room. As a result, we see a rise in flashy Technicolor musicals and epic wide-screen biblical epics. At the same time, there was a rise in the industry of communism, as writers, like Dalton Trumbo, were attracted by its promise of a piece of the pie that studio executives, read moguls, were unwilling to share. And about this time, those moguls were starting to fall to a new breed of filmmaker, as the studio system was being replaced.

It is against this backdrop that the Coen brothers have set their new film Hail, Caesar! I felt a tenuous connection to the film, as we were both on the Warner Bros. lot in December 2014. I even took some photos showing the presence of the production, not knowing what it was all about. Add to that, my love for old Hollywood film and I was a ready-built audience.

Warner Bros. turned into Capitol Pictures.

The Coen brothers have previously used Hollywood as a backdrop, Barton Fink (1991). In that film, the studio system was in full bloom and a young New York playwright, the titular character played by John Turturro, gets caught up in it, when he is hired by Capitol Pictures to write scripts. While the film received a lot of critical attention, winning the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, it failed to recoup its production costs when it hit theaters.

Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix is more than a "fixer".

For Hail, Caesar! Capitol Pictures is once again the backdrop. Now it is run by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who has to spend most of his time keeping track of all the studio’s productions and the actors under his charge. But the Mannix character is an example of what is not quite right about Hail, Caesar! While Brolin does a fine acting job, his position in the film is systematic of what is wrong with it. We’re told, he’s a “fixer,” a nebulous position, but at the same time his responsibilities seem to be much more far reaching, including making casting choices, counseling with religious leaders on the studio’s bible epic already in production, making a daily call to the head office in New York, and other items that would fall into the inbox of the head of production. While I doubt Louis B. Mayer was as personally involved as Mannix is, he certainly would care about the same things Mannix does, down to the arranged dates of his actors for premieres.

Hail, Caesar! just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. The production does a fine job of making a believable seeming studio, culled from location and stage shooting at Warner Bros., Sony and Universal, as well as Union Station and other locales. But like a studio set, there is nothing much more behind the fa├žade. There is no big story here, just a lot of little ones that don’t come together to make a better whole.

Capitol Pictures is part Warner Bros.lot (above) and part other studios as well.

The acting, for the most part, is pretty good, but quite frankly none of the other characters seem to run true. Oh, you can see the types they’re playing, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is clearing a Kirk Douglas type; Scarlett Johansson is an Esther Williams type star, DeeAnna Moran; Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly type as Burt Gurney; Tilda Swinton is both Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, but the twist is that she’s twin sisters ala Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby): Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Jonah Hill really has very little to do besides sit behind a desk; you almost see as much of him in the trailers as you do on the screen.

The stand out for me was Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy, ala Gene Autry, whom Mannix tries to turn into a serious leading man. He’s been around Hollywood for a few years with roles in Beautiful Creatures (2013) and Blue Jasmine (2013), to name a few. Having seen the latter, I have to admit I don’t remember him at all being in it. But unlike that film, he stands out here. He has perhaps the best scene in the film, in which he and film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) discuss his delivery of dialogue in his first serious role.

Stand out performance from Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. Here in one of the
 film's best scenes, he takes help from director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

Another stand out is Frances McDormand. She may be in only one scene in the film, in the small role of the cigarette chain-smoking film editor C.C. Calhoun, but McDormand (the wife of Joel Coen) certainly makes the most of her screen time.

Along the way, the film tramples on some reputations, either directly or through association. While I can’t go into details without giving too much away, safe to say Esther Williams and Danny Kaye get the worst of the innuendos tossed around about their reputations.

Also, some of the productions depicted in the film wouldn’t have made it through the production code, which was still very much in effect at the time. I’m thinking mostly of the homo-erotically charged dance number we see Burt Gurney (Tatum) participating in. While it might be played for laughs now, it doesn’t ring true as something a studio would have done at the time. Just another example of Hail, Caesar! missing the mark.

Dance routine wouldn't have passed the Production Code.

Historically, Hollywood is very much hit and miss when it turns the camera on itself; films like: Show People (1928), Stand In (1937), and Boy Meets Girl (1938) don’t quite succeed.  There are exceptions when they do work like: Sunset Blvd (1950), Singin’ In the Rain (1952), and The Artist (2011), the latter really being a French production shot here. Hail, Caesar!, I'm afraid, is in the miss category.

While I really wanted to see Hail, Caesar! I really can’t recommend it. Set in a troubled time in the history of Hollywood, there is a lot of context, but not enough text for me to recommend.

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