Among the ranks of modern filmmakers, few cast as long a shadow as the Coen brothers. Other filmmakers may make bigger, more popular or even just more frequent movies, but no one can make movies that are quite as unique, strange and yes, brilliant movies. From the offbeat comedy of The Big Lebowski to the deadly serious No Country for Old Men, no one makes movies like the Coens.
Which makes grading their movies…difficult. The Coen brothers get to me, in a weird way. Even at their worst, I appreciate their workmanship and several of their movies have appealed to me for reasons that are either very personal or just very, very weird. But since they consistently make great films, I’ve never felt guilty about recommending one of their movies.
Hail, Ceasar! (the punctuation is very important) is about Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who works at a movie studio in the 1950s. What does he do, you ask? Well…everything. He’s employed as a ‘Fixer’ a man who goes about the studio and fixes any problems that arise, whether it be finding a way to hide their star actress, DeeAnna’s pregnancy (Scarlett Johansson) or to make sure that their auteur director Laurence (Ralph Finnes) gets along with the new actor assigned to his movie.
But today something is going to go wrong that might take up all his energy; Their biggest actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped off the set of their Ben Hur style production. So Mannix has to scurry around the studio, wrangling actors, handing minor crises and dodging the press to get the ransom money to Whitlock’s kidnappers, before he has to shut down the incredibly expensive production.
Those of you going into this film expecting one of the Coen’s more deep and meaningful pieces, in the vein of No Country for Old Men or even just True Grit are probably going to be disappointed. It’s closest relative in their filmography is probably The Big Lebowski, a broad, if weird, comedy where huge chunks of the film seem to be designed just to mess with audience expectation or misdirect in the name of a goof. What makes it worth watching nonetheless is that it’s totally f**king hysterical.
It’s very difficult to make a good comedy given modern marketing techniques, since so many of the best jokes will inevitably wind up in the trailer. But Hail, Caesar! avoids that by making all of its comedy situational or long drawn out jokes that are unsuited to trailers. Yes, we all know that Channing Tatum is going to tap dance in this movie, but what we don’t know is the context, or what he’s tap dancing about. And that’s just one minor example that was in the trailers. A conversation between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Finnes had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my seat.
From great jokes, it only needs a few good cast members to keep the movie going, and here (as always) the Coens deliver. Clooney’s calm, ‘Roll with it’ attitude to his own kidnapping never ceases to amuse, and Brolin makes a great straight man to the whole affair, but the one or two scene cast members really kill.
Tilda Swinton brings the same stiff comedic energy she often brings to the lighter stuff the Coens and Wes Anderson have her do, and she kills in her handful of scenes. Tatum’s single scene of singing and dancing is instantly memorable (and weirdly hilarious) and Ehrenreich is just enough of a human beneath his ridiculous accent and character to make him a real character, rather than just a cliche.
This is normally the part where I’d spend a paragraph or two talking about the writing or directing, but I’m not going to waste all our time with that. It’s the Coen brothers, and they’re working with Roger Deakins. Even their lesser movies are beautifully directed and have great writing. At this point, the Coens have earned the right for me to skip this paragraph…by writing a paragraph about how I’m going to skip it. Oh well.
If the movie has a flaw, and this might not be a flaw for everyone, it’s how the plot chooses to unfold. Like Lebowski, the movie feels like its plot is a bit of goof. It doesn’t really feel the need to be satisfying for the audience. As I said to my viewing companion when the credits were playing, the movie even ended sarcastically, and if you get what I mean by that, you can probably guess whether or not you’ll like the movie.
Still, that, and the occasionally jumpy pacing, are relatively minor issues, in an otherwise good movie. This isn’t great Coen brothers, but it’s still Coen brothers, and generally speaking, they’re better at their worst than most directors are at their best. It’s still February, and a movie this solid coming out this early bodes well for 2016’s movie scene being better than 2015’s. Either way, this comes highly recommended.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile and it’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t leave him incredibly depressed.
– great script
– good direction
– fantastic cast
– screamingly funny
– story doesn’t take itself very seriously
– pacing is kind of jumpy