Hail, Caesar!

Matt Zoller Seitz, the current editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, is one of my favorite film critics. He is prone to pretension and a little too eager to reference his in-depth knowledge of art film, but his writing is always thought provoking, and at its best it channels the same kind of passion for film and plainspoken analysis that Ebert’s writing did.

Over the past few months, he’s done an occasional piece called “30 Minutes On…“, where he writes about a movie – any movie – for 30 minutes and then publishes what he has.

In the interest of restarting this blog, I’ve decided to try and emulate this formula. I’ll still do a little bit of copy-editing after the fact, but I think it’s a good model to keep my writing skills sharp while also doing something I love. I don’t know why writing at length became so hard for me overtime, but sure enough, doing this in 30 minutes made it feel more fun.

No promises with this blog, but I’ll see where it goes.

I hope you like it! 🙂

The Reviewhail-caesar02

I’ll be honest. I missed maybe the first five minutes of this movie. Atypical of me, I know. But I prefer to see movies at the Cinemark 8 in NoHo; cheap AND recliner seats! But I left late and then just HAD to get snacks when I got there! I digress. The fact is Joel and Ethan Coen make films so clockwork precise in their construction that missing a scene can render the whole thing incomprehensible…

…That’s an exaggeration. I followed the plot fine. But I’m sure I missed some of the tone set up in the latest creation from the cult craftsmen behind the likes of The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. One review mentioned that Josh Brolin’s studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (loosely based on an actual human being with that name), slaps a woman early on in the film, a moment I presume is played for laughs. I can’t tell you how I feel about it in the context of this 50’s set caper, whether its presentation is problematic or a wry commentary on the subjugation of women at the time, but whatever it’s doing there it is done with purpose. The Coens are renowned for nothing if not being scrupulous, every line, gesture, and detail serving to fill out the character of each film’s word.

Or do they?

Precisely the point.

In comparison to their aforementioned works, Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens in their sunniest mode in quiet some time. When not curdling their audience’s blood with unbearable tension in their more recent thrillers, their comedies of the past decade have been of a more ‘existential dread’ variety, usually with sudden, unsatisfying conclusions that are, again, precisely the point. Jovial viewing this does not always make. That the Coens have made something so untaxing to the cerebrum, so outright goofy, is something of a small miracle these days. As a book I’ve recently read says, we should be grateful for ‘small mercies.’

Hail, Ceasar! is, simply put, the Coens’ ode to old Hollywood. Every kind of movie your parents watched as you were growing up – and therefore the ones the Coens watched growing up, too – is not only paid homage but replicated with almost terrifying exactitude. It’s perhaps none-more-obvious in Channing Tatum’s dance number, featured in most trailers and TV spots as oblivious to its own homoeroticism. But broad as those comic beats are, Tatum literally resurrects the spirit of Gene Kelly, creating a number that looks like it was ripped straight of the unused negatives of Anchors Aweigh, sans the cartoon mouse. Similarly, the westerns of John Wayne, the musicals of Bubsy Berkley, and most ostentatiously, the swords-and-sandals epics of Kubrick and De Mille are all given their due here.

The Coens’ eye for casting has always been one of their strongest suits, and it serves to bolster these homages, and the story that frames them, enormously. Fresh-faced Alden Ehrenreich (of the Twilight knock-off, Beautiful Creatures) gets a star-making turn here as Hobie Doyle, the John Wayne-lite whose decent heart but utter lack of talent derails the making of a Laurence Olivier-esque drama the studio forces him into to better his image, much to the consternation of Ralph Fiennes’ director (who doesn’t do nearly enough comedies, as he’s always a delight in them.) George Clooney once again makes himself a fool for the Coens as Baird Whitlock, the air-headed matinee idol who’s kidnapping is the catalyst of this movie. Seriously, his facial expressions, constantly floating from shock to cocksure and back to shock, are maybe the funniest thing in this movie. And Josh Brolin brings real tenderness and, when needed, a truly fearsome screen presence to Mannix, seemingly the only one who runs this studio and tries to take all of his stars’ and starlets’ bumblings with good grace, all the while caught between the dilemma of whether he should do what he knows he’s good at or consider more ‘serious’ opportunities on the horizon.

The mentions of about four of the film’s stars barely even scratches the surface of the star-studded ensemble here, from Scarlett Johansson to Jonah Hill to Tilda Swinton. Even the bit parts are a who’s-who of character actors, from the likes of Fred Melamed and Clancy Brown, to goddamn Michael Gambon narrating the fuckin’ thing, his presence not only omnipotent in its observations of Mannix’s Sisyphean struggles, but of the inherent battle between art and commerce that is making movies. In this sense, this finds the Coens’ predilection for subtext at its most surface-level.

Of course, does this all mean it’s a good movie? I tend to need other reviewers to point out the things I don’t see and recontextualize my thoughts for me. I don’t think the Coens can make a bad movie. At the very least, I don’t think they could ever make a boring one. And Hail, Caesar! is not nearly as opaque as the likes of A Serious Man or Inside Lleywn Davis (thank the Lord.) Though you’ve no doubt noticed the massive list of stars attached to this movie, and though they are all perfectly cast, therein lies the rub. Many of these stars have only one or two scenes and don’t ever really connect with the other. As such, the movie feels like a series of very strongly conceived character sketches that are attached to a story that just doesn’t really have the emotional push it needs to be truly worth investing in, despite the zaniness of its kidnapping plot and a burgeoning Communist revolution. So again, a bad movie? By no means! But on the scale of their comedies, it’s no O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan’s Travels must be one of the Coens’ favorite movies. (In fact, O Brother takes its name from the fictitious novel that Joel McCrea’s director wants to adapt.) Hail, Caesar! feels like the Coens’ attempt to step back in time and make their own version of Travels. The central storyline, of a man torn between working for the ‘circus’ versus the ‘serious,’ only to realize the value of entertainment, is reflected almost exactly. The Coens are the rare breed of filmmaker that can flit between the starkly dramatic and the completely screwball and create classics in both while never losing the trademarks that are unmistakably ‘theirs.’ In that sense, one cannot not recommend seeing this movie. Even in their stumbles, major or minor, the Coens offer you stunning craftsmanship and things you’ve never seen before. How many movies can you say that about?

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