Saturday, 5 November 2016

Coen Brothers' "Hail, Caesar!" – Squint against the grandeur!

I recently finished watching the IMDB Top 250 list and for that exercise I watched every film, regardless of whether I expected to love or hate them.  I’m now working through the BBC’s 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films list and, well, I’m being slightly less rigorous.  There are certain directors (Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan and Jackson for example) that I’ve simply had a bellyful of on the Top 250 list.  To put it bluntly, I won’t be watching any more of their fucking films.  Steven Spielberg is a different case.  There are quite a few of his films on the 250 list.  Some of the earlier ones (Jaws, Jurassic Park) I enjoyed.  Others I really hated (Schindler's List).  Generally the sentimentality and artistic misjudgement of the later films outweigh the positive elements for me – there’s no denying Spielberg’s talent, but the rage these later films generate in me can’t be good for the heart, so I’ve decided to add Spielberg to the Cunt List along with Tarantino etc.  (Sorry I’ve got a bit sweary in this introduction, by the way.)

All of this is a longwinded way of saying that I haven’t watched the film at Number 83 on the BBC list, A.I. Artifical Intelligence, by Steven Spielberg, and I’ve replaced it with Hail, Caesar!, by the Coen Brothers.


Hail, Caesar! isn’t a well-loved film among the Coen Brothers’ output.  People complain that it hasn’t got a plot, or they walked out of it, or fell asleep during it or whatever.  Personally, I loved it and chuckled my way through the whole thing.

The set pieces – George Clooney’s epic Roman scenes, Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing routine, Scarlett Johansson’s synchronized swimming extravaganza, Alden Ehrenreich’s adventures with his horse, Whitey – are all magnificent, and serve both as a homage to the entertainment value of 1950s Hollywood big-budget movies and a knowing nod to the artifice and non-reality of these glitzy entertainments.

Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character, Hobie Doyle, is pushed into a mannered drawing-room drama directed by a British director Laurence Laurentz, played by Ralph Fiennes.  Hobie is horribly miscast due to the unavailability of any other actor and doesn’t make a success of the role.  It’s a sign of the genius of this film, however, that the Coens don’t mock poor Hobie from one end of the film to the other.  On a date contrived for publicity purposes by the studio between Hobie and a young starlet, Hobie is allowed to be charming as he demonstrates his lassoing skills with spaghetti strands at the dinner table.  This is the kind of artistic judgement that comes with the long experience of the Coens.

Review continues below...

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Of course, without the problems in production (Hobie’s miscasting, Scarlett’s character’s pregnancy, Clooney’s character’s kidnapping), there would be no need for Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) as the Hollywood fixer, who has to keep the expensive productions running smoothly.  Mannix is a Catholic and he is often tempted in the film – to lie, to smoke cigarettes after he’s told his wife he’s quit, and to change industries to a well-paid position being offered by the engineering firm Lockheed.  But while the crazy, frivolous world of Hollywood is held up against the sober, cushy world of Lockheed, Mannix is never in any doubt about where his heart lies.  When the Lockheed recruiter shows Mannix a photo of a hydrogen bomb detonation that his company has been involved with, the relative evils of the two industries are put into focus.

A nicely understated aspect of this film is that Mannix is such a brilliant manager.  He walks the line between satisfying political pressures and compromising quality.  He promises to follow up on the results of his decisions (such as watching the rushes) and always does what he says he’ll do.  He deals with the creatives in exactly the right way to keep them happy and to extract their best performances.  It’s not often that the mundane techniques of proper work are convincingly shown in art, but this is a great example.

George Clooney has worked with the Coen Brothers on a number of films now and I think he gives good value.  I liked him in another much hated Coen Brothers film, Intolerable Cruelty.  The DVD extras of that film showed him doing a dozen takes of spitting out a mouthful of tea in surprise, and I don’t doubt that his jowl-shaking response to being slapped by Mannix towards the end of this film took just as much effort to get perfect.  Clooney’s character is kidnapped by a group of Marxist writers, who are furious at being cut out of the profits of the films that rely on their scripts, and who get their revenge by slipping in sly Marxist references wherever they can to the studio’s film scripts.  There are some long scenes of Clooney with the Marxists and I suspect it is these that cause much of the negative reactions to Hail, Caesar!.  I loved them though – they are full of little gags, not least of which is the sight of these Marxists having their earnest discussions in a luxury ocean-side building, complete with servants, eating crustless cucumber sandwiches.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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