Hail, 'Caesar'!

Hail, Caesar!
(USA, 106 min.)
Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Alison Pill, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill.
Josh Brolin stars in Hail, Caesar!
Universal Pictures Canada

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are a curious pair. Two Hollywood outsiders and kids from the indie crowd, they’ve built a canon of singular films while rising in the ranks of critical esteem, festival circuit pedigree, and Oscar-worthy laurels. They might have four Academy Awards to their names, but they haven’t sold out or buckled to Hollywood. (Yes, they’ve done re-writes for films like Unbroken and Bridge of Spies, but everyone needs to eat.) The Coens, if anything, flip the bird to Hollywood the more it embraces them: their comedy gets blacker, their violence gets bloodier, and their philosophy gets denser. Filmmakers achieve a rare level of freedom and anonymity when they’re as consistently good as the Coens are, and their latest film Hail, Caesar! is one wacky comedy that throws pie all over Tinseltown’s face.

Hail, Caesar! devilishly inspires a grin as the Coens unfurl the loony escapades of Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, going for broke in his funniest and possibly best performance to date) as he polices a series of shenanigans that go down on the lot of Capitol Pictures. The biggest mess is the disappearance of the star of Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, who hilariously relishes the role of the pretty but dumb leading man), from the set of Capitol’s latest Biblical epic and awards-grubbing prestige picture. Whitlock goes missing and winds up in the company of some Hollywood Commies who dub themselves “The Future” and show the actor the light when it comes to Tinseltown’s Capitalist charade. It’s a very funny plotline on the heels of Trumbo, as the fear of Reds everywhere runs throughout the film, both sharply and subtly, and most humorously echoes in a pivotal speech before Jesus Christ on the cross during the shoot of Hail, Caesar!’s climactic scene. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Hail, Caesar! is that the Coens don’t take their send-up of classic Hollywood a step further by featuring a cutaway to the whitest, blondest actor they could find to play JC, like Brad Pitt or Matt Damon.

The casting everywhere in Hail, Caesar!  is spot-on, however, as Mannix’s sleuthing efforts to keep the studio shipshape take him on sets in which Ralph Fiennes plays a dandy director of elegant adaptations, Scarlett Johansson plays a saucy broad of the silver screen, and Channing Tatum dons a sailor suit and tap shoes to one-up Magic Mike with a sensationally merry musical number that would make Gene Kelly blush. Adding to the zaniness of the Hollywood insiders’ mockery is the inspired casting of Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin Hedda Hopper-type gossip columnists. She’s very funny playing one as an insecure, career-seeking hack, and the other as a snippy, sassy chatterbox who even outshines her sister with bigger, better, featherier hats. Hail, Caesar! offers a who’s who of Coen Brothers film regulars and everyone seems to be having a blast.

The proof that the Coens find one of their funniest and silliest scripts yet in the madcap satire of Hail, Caesar! appears in the impressive casting of major stars in minor roles. The film features a buffet of stars and up-and-comers, from a cameo by Frances McDormand in film’s single funniest gag as a chain smoking and improperly-attired film editor to a droll, beefy performance by Alden Ehrenreich as a hack rodeo actor undergoing an image change. Add a cornucopia of character actors like Wayne Knight and voiceover narration from Michael Gambon, and Hail, Caesar! celebrates the little guys and the stars alike as products of the same machine. The cast goes for broke and has a riot, yet Hail, Caesar! finds its biggest laughs in the apparent complicity of the performers in the ruse in which their characters find themselves. Everyone looks to be giving a knowing wink or playing somebody they’ve encountered in the business, so the film offers a comically tacit acknowledgment from the stars that Hollywood is a product of its own failings.

As a satire, Hail, Caesar! is raucously silly with spot-on musical numbers and songs that play out in full as Mannix skulks around the soundstages and keeps an eye on his stars. The choreography is bright and zany, while the production design by Jess Goncher and the costumes by Mary Zophres get the details of the period just right: the film doesn’t need hyperbole in the arts and tech department, save for Swinton’s loud Hedda Hopper-y get-ups. (As a period film, it’s impressive.) DP Roger Deakins naturally impresses with dark, smoky atmospheres, and Hail, Caesar! is at its funniest when playing it straight.

The Brothers Coen get the last mirthless chuckle with their screwball satire Hail, Caesar! as the film riotously stabs at the Hollywood star machine while wonderfully sending up the magic of movies that produce such farces. The great thing about Hail, Caesar! is that one doesn’t need to be a classic film aficionado to get the jokes. (But it probably helps.) The film instead lets everyone in the theatre be a part of the ruse: movies are screwy, the people behind them are even screwier, but we love the whole business because it puts a smile on our face every time the lights go down.

Hail, Caesar! opens in theatres February 5.