Hail, Caesar! a film by the Coen brothers.
For me the most surprising moment in Hail, Caesar was when the credits started to roll. I couldn’t believe an hour and forty-five minutes had passed. It seemed like about an hour. I also couldn’t believe that was all there was to the movie. They should have had Peggy Lee singing during the credits (as Tug McGraw used to say about his fastball).
“That’s the Coen brothers,” my wife said as we walked out. “Every movie’s a dud. Except Raising Arizona, and Fargo.”
That isn’t my impression. I love a movie that’s well put together, and where the dialogue is good, the scenes memorable. I always look forward to a Coen Brothers movie, and had been anticipating this one ever since I first saw the trailer, which must have been back in 2014. This movie was a long time comin’.
The plot—what plot there is—concerns a Hollywood fixer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). He’s overseeing a cluster of movies and their various actors—the cast is superb—giving the Coen brothers a chance to satirize various cinematic conventions of the fifties, including the Biblical epic, the Esther Williams water picture, the singing cowboy movie, and the musical. John Anderson in the Wall Street Journal says this film proves that the Coen brothers hate movies, but those fifties movies deserve satire if anything ever did. I surf through Netflix and think, yeah, I’d like to see that again. I loved it when I was a kid. Then we watch the thing, and my wife looks at me like I’m a moron. What a decade.
The main movie satirized is Ben Hur, which starred the most wooden actor of all time, Charlton Heston. I loved it back then (so sue me; I was eleven years old), saw it three times, the second by myself from the third row (the chariots seemed about to disembowel me). I still remember that when men shook hands in that movie, they grasped each other’s forearms instead (wow, those Biblical guys were manly, I thought), and I remember Judah Ben Hur’s poignant protest, “I’m eeenocent. I’m eeenocent.” Apparently Heston thought that pronouncing words in a weird way made him sound Jewish, which he was supposed to be. Somehow he didn’t look Jewish to me.
The Heston character in Hail, Caesar! is named Baird Whitlock and is played by George Clooney, who tries to act as wooden as Heston but far too lively a human being. The true hero of both films, of course, is Jesus Christ, who is never seen face on but only from behind, and there’s a key scene where we see Heston’s face—and that of other men as well—when they encounter him for the first time. They’re supposed to register awe, sanctity, who knows what. In Hail, Caesar we get a glimpse of Whitlock’s outtakes as he tries to register this moment. That sequence is hilarious. Also his final speech, where he’s moving the whole crew practically to tears until he forgets a key word and ruins everything (this isn’t a spoiler; it was in the trailer). Oh shit, he might as well have said, I really fucked that up.
All the pleasurable moments of this film are like that: you get the allusions, and chuckle, but keep waiting for the point. Scarlett Johansson is the Esther Williams character, and she’s supposed to be America’s wholesome sweetheart—the swimming pool number is way over the top—but she has a Bugs Bunny accent and a sordid sex life; she’s knocked up as the movie begins and they have to find a husband for her, or something to explain this baby that’s on the way. There are all kinds of jokes within that subplot; when we meet the guy who impregnated her, we can’t believe she’d have anything to do with him, then she runs off with . . . Jonah Hill! We don’t actually see this moment, just hear about it. That is a spoiler. I apologize.
Ralph Fiennes plays a punctilious movie director of society pictures who has to handle a hick with a Southern accent, Tilda Swinton plays twin gossip writers, Frances McDormand a film editor. The great names just keep coming. Channing Tatum does a marvelous dance number that is as over the top as the swimming number, and suggests that, in many of those fifties movies, the guys lamenting their lack of female companionship (“There Is Nothing Like a Dame”) were really happy just being with the boys. It’s funny, it’s all funny, but where’s the actual movie? Baird Whitlock is captured by a bunch of Communist screenwriters, and their arguments, led by those of Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), actually convince him. That’s the rough equivalent of Heston coming around to gun control. How ironic! But that’s the point?
The one real surprise of the movie, more even than the credits popping up, is Alden Ehrenreich, the one actor we didn’t recognize even once we knew his name (my wife has total recall of actors’ faces. She can always tell me the five movies I’ve seen the guy in before). He plays Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy, and all of his scenes are great: his confrontation with Ralph Fiennes, who is trying to use him in the society picture; a scene where he waits for his date and spontaneously does some rope tricks (which he later duplicates in a restaurant with a string of spaghetti); the actual movie he stars in, where he sings beautifully. The man is hilarious, and as good looking as any movie actor who ever lived. His scenes alone are worth the price of admission, even if you don’t get the senior discount. But if you don’t get the discount, you’re not old enough to get the allusions.
I actually think you should see this movie. The comic bits are great, and it’s beautifully done. Just don’t expect much. The Coens had a great initial idea, for a bunch of Saturday Night Live type skits. They just never figured out how to pull them together.
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