Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers at their mildest.
[The exclamation point at the end of the title reminds me of Jeb!]
In Hail, Caesar! the Coens' farce is frivolous; their satire is soft.
Hail, Caesar! is one of those films that depend on the knowledge you bring to the movie. It has a lot of inside jokes that must have kept the Coens smiling. The audience, not so much. You may need a Cliff Notes to uncover the range and import of the allusions.
Set in the early 1950s, Hail, Caesar! is the tale of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is trying to keep his faith alive in two institutions - his Roman Catholicism and the movies. Everyday he goes to confession seeking forgiveness for such venial "sins" as smoking cigarettes and telling a lie to his wife.
At work, Mannix is an executive at Capitol Pictures Studios and a "fixer," who covers up the actions of the sinners in the movie business. The character is loosely based on an actual figure who was at MGM.
At the end of the movie, a priest in the confessional tells Eddie, "God wants you to do what is right." Ok. But that's not exactly an imaginative payoff. I need a little more alienation.
The Coen Brothers usually are among the best in contemporary filmmaking at portraying alienation: No Country for Old Men (2007), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996). They are perhaps the best at expressing the sense of alienation that was so effectively prevalent in movies of the 1970s.
But Hail, Caesar! is lacking in their two staples - alienation and irony.
Hail, Caesar! does have some memorable moments. In a cameo, female film editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand, Joel's Coen's actual wife) is reminiscent of masterly editor Dede Allen - with an accessory of Isadora Duncan thrown in.
And the scene being shot of a homoerotic sequence of dancers in sailors' uniforms is sly.
The Coens plumb film history. Scarlett Johansson, with a brash New Jersey accent, is DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams-type actress.
Eventually, Moran needs to adopt her own child - an allusion to Loretta Young and beyond.
One effective scene that doesn't depend on background knowledge is when refined director Laurenze Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) tries to teach inexperienced actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to say the line, "Would that it were so simple." It's shtik, but amusing shtik.
But several of the scenes are lifeless - especially a group of screenwriters who are Communists. They're a dull bunch.
Maybe that's the point, but that makes lousy cinema.
The emphasis on powerful Russian music doesn't make them any more interesting.
A kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) adds to the slight plot.
Clooney is good at his goofy charm.
But the actor who steals the show is Alden Ehrenreich. He reminded me of Audie Murphy with his baby face and quick draw.
Josh Brolin tenuously holds the film together playing the serious but likable Mannix.
Tilda Swinton gives another of her tours de force performances as twins who are newspaper columnists.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins does his usual mastery in Hail, Caesar!. In 2008, Deakins should have won an Oscar for the Coens' No Country for Old Men, but didn't. He was also nominated that year for his evocative work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It split the votes for Deakins.
Deakins has been nominated 13 times for an Oscar but never won. Now that's irony. That deserves a Coen Brothers' movie.
Hail, Caesar! is broken into vignettes. They're genres of movie entertainment: westerns, musicals, fashionable comedy-dramas, and spectacular epics. It's potluck cinema.
Hail, Caesar! is a movie salad.