Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2016 8:33 pm 
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Back to vintage Hollywood with Joel and Ethan

With Hail, Caesar! the Coens have constructed a half loving, half mocking picture of old studio Hollywood. They did that, a bit, 25 years ago with Barton Fink, but this entertaining but desultory narrative has nothing of that earlier movie's vividness and surreal intensity. Hail, Caesar! has funny bits in it, and some amazing set pieces, especially three involving Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich, and Channing Tatum, respectively, but the running theme of the kidnapping of goofy big star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is a throw-away. He's held, at a spiffy Malibu modernist clifftop mansion, by a klatsch of erstwhile frustrated writers (they call it a "study group"), plus professor Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal) who're all communists. Their extended discussion of Marxism and Baird Whitlock's naive conversion is a drawn-out joke unlikely to mean much of anything to the general audience. Watching this movie at a busy cineplex on a Saturday afternoon, I didn't hear any laughter. I wanted to applaud at Ehrenreich's rodeo tricks and Tatum's acrobatic song-and-dance moves, but nobody seemed as delighted by them either. The trouble is, this is a pasted-together film; it lacks the driving energy and fun of a real comedy. But there is so much going on here, and it can be savored in reruns and home viewings. There's no doubt that the Coens are as brilliant and independent as ever. This time the craftsmanship and production values are more impressive than they were or perhaps could have been in their earlier work. The bright cinematography is by Academy Awards regular Roger Deakins, Oscar-nominated for four other Coen brothers films.

This movie will particularly appeal to fans of old Hollywood movies and students of its scandals and politics. The titular epic-in-progress expensively interrupted by Baird Whitlock's kidnapping, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, refers to both Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis, whose stars, Lou Lemenick of the Post points out in a reference-key, were right-leaning, so Baird's conversion to Marxism is a sly joke. Rumors of Baird's having a gay affair in an early movie refer to Clark Gable. Channing Tatum's gay song-and-dance performer, Burt Gurney, refers to Gene Kelly, who (though straight) supported the left-leaning Hollywood people hauled off to Washington to testify, except Buirt actually goes off in a Russian submarine. And he's gay, and performs in a hilarious homoerotic naval musical, alluding to On the Town and Anchors Aweigh, both from the Forties. But while Tatum's musical routine is satirical, it's also dazzling, including impressive flips and leaps, tap dancing and singing. With this, Magic Mike XXL, and The Hateful Eight recently added to his CV, Tabum establishes himself as a thespian for all seasons.

It doesn't take a film historian or even a Turner Classics fan to see that DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is based on Esther Williams. Her synchronized swim routine mimics an actual Busby Berkeley one, in Million Dollar Mermaid, Lemenick points out, her long dive at the end paralleling a 115-foot one in that film in which Williams broke her neck. The Brooklyn drawl Johannson does is her own, one she's done well before. DeeAnna's adoption of her own illegitimate child story refers to Loretta Young.

It's nice to see Alden Ehrenreich, a young actor little seen since his feature debut in Francis Ford Coppola's largely ignored 2009 Tetro, giving a prominent spot parallel to Johansson's and Tatum's. He's quite adorable, and technically impressive, as Hobie Doyle, a twangy singing cowboy who's suddenly thrust into a drawing-room comedy directed by an effete gay English director (Laurence Laurentz: Ralph Fiennes), who can't for the life of him copy Laurentz's toney line readings or even get his name right, In other scenes Robbie performs astonishing feats with lassos and horses, and dates, to order, a Carmen Miranda-like young Latina actress (Veronica Osorio). Lemenick spots Laurentz as "a mashup of Minnelli and Cukor" (though of course neither of those were English), and Robbie's co-star in the drawing room drama would be Deborah Kerr. Joel Coen's wife Frances McDormand appears briefly as a surreal chain-smoking film editor who nearly chokes on her own scarf, the character a reference to MGM editor Margaret Booth. What rich detail the Coens pack into each of these scenes!

And so on. There is more. Obviously the running tale of the kidnapping makes the theme of leftist Hollywood writers paramount, though whether the way they're made fun of will appeal to current Hollywood liberals or even make sense is uncertain. The two Coen regulars who keep things going in the movie are Clooney and Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, the latter the main go-to man for Captol Studios (that name carried over from Barton Fink). Matinee idol Clooney's willingness to appear foolish echoes his much appreciated role in the Coens' Blue Grass romp, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Eddie Mannix's worries over whether to keep on in the thick of Hollywood or take an easier, safer job in the aviation industry aren't very exciting, and Josh here is a letdown after his exciting role as Llewelyn Moss, the man pursued by the evil killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the Coen's thrilling adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Hail, Caesar! has those little pleasures and big set pieces and many references but, as a whole, it isn't a coherent work of art as the Coens' best movies are. In her copious, rambling review of this movie in the "New York Times, Manohla Dargis calls it "one of those diversions" the Coens produce "between masterworks and duds." You could put it that way.

Hail, Caesar!, 106 mins., premiered 1 Feb. 2016 in Los Angeles. It opened wide in the US 5 Feb.; later in the month and the next in other countries.

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