Friday, February 5, 2016

Hail, Caesar! — A block, a stone, a worse than senseless thing

Hail, Caesar! (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.16

A new Coen brothers film usually is cause for celebration.

Not this time.

Capitol Pictures studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has just learned that his
water ballet star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), is pregnant. She's also
unmarried: a potentially juicy scandal waiting to be scooped up by hovering
Hollywood gossip columnists.
Hail, Caesar! is a classic study of wretched excess: a labored, overcooked, star-heavy production that isn’t nearly as funny as everybody seems to think.

I’m reminded of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, also a bloated period comedy made at a point when the then-young director thought he could do no wrong. It, too, is an overwrought mess that mostly wastes the talents of a cast that was impressive for its time.

Spielberg’s 1941 attempted to mine humor from a WWII-era storyline that proposed a Japanese submarine invasion off the California coast. Hail, Caesar!, set in Hollywood during the “nifty fifties” — when, terrified by the arrival of television, the motion picture industry’s glorious façade was beginning to show visible cracks — attempts to mine humor from (among other things) a Communist submarine invasion off the California coast.

A moment which, it must be mentioned, climaxes the film’s most protracted and thoroughly inane subplot.

At its core, though, the Coen brothers’ script is a day-in-the-life study of Hollywood studio chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who confronts various crises — large and small — during a typical 24 hours. His soundstages are laden with sets and stars for numerous films in various stages of production, and all are typical of the time period:

• A sophisticated drawing room melodrama, where disgruntled, mildly prissy director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has just been saddled with corn-pone singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as his new young protagonist;

• A sailors-at-sea musical, with song-and-dance superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) channeling Gene Kelly;

• A waterlogged, Busby Berkeley-style extravaganza, headlined by swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson); and, most particularly...

• A biblical epic featuring famed studio leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), as a Roman centurion who undergoes a moral conversion after encountering no less than Jesus himself.

At the same time, Mannix must put off a pair of rival gossip columnists — twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) — before they catch wind of several brewing scandals. DeeAnna is pregnant and unmarried (horrors!); a rising young starlet has been caught doing cheesecake for a sleazy photographer (heavens!); and — can you believe it? — Baird has been kidnapped by parties unknown, who have demanded $100,000 for his safe return.

On top of which, Mannix is being courted by a representative from Lockheed Aircraft, who is tempting the meticulously organized studio chief to abandon such “frivolous efforts” in order to embrace a “real job.”

All in a day’s work, it seems.

Trouble is, Brolin’s Mannix makes a very weak linking element; he simply isn’t interesting. He overplays stoic restraint to the point of becoming a blank slate. While I appreciate the obvious intent to milk humor from his being the ship of calm in his tempestuous studio ocean, he’s too granite-faced.

I kept thinking how much better (for example) Billy Bob Thornton would have been in the same role, particularly while parrying the razor-sharp verbal thrusts from the Thacker twins. Brolin, in dull contrast, is boring.

In fairness, other isolated sequences are quite funny. Laurentz’s exasperated efforts to get a credible line reading out of Hobie are hilarious, as is Frances McDormand’s fleeting appearance as an ace film editor. Tatum’s efforts in an ensemble dance number are superbly choreographed to an amusingly dumb song that evokes numerous lesser 1950s musicals.

And, frankly, Ehrenreich’s Hobie ambles away with the film. He’s by far the best — and most consistently amusing — ingredient in this vegetable-laden stew.

Most of the big-name players simply don’t amount to much. McDormand is present for one brief scene, then gone; Fiennes gets two, and then also gone. Jonah Hill pops up just long enough to notarize some legally suspect paperwork; Alison Pill has an eye-blink cameo as Mannix’s bubbly, whatever-you-wish-dear wife.

Instead, we spend an insufferably long second act with the “social club” that has orchestrated Baird’s kidnapping: a nest of disgruntled Hollywood writers who turn out to be flaming communists, and who do their best — via didactic and mind-numbing sermons — to win the impressionable movie star to their cause. (This subplot never, ever catches fire; it just drags along like a grotesquely failed acting class exercise.)

Clooney, throughout, hammers Baird’s wide-eye innocence and gullibility: a one-note performance that is mildly amusing at first, but quickly wears thin.

And don’t even ask me to dissect Tatum’s role; Gurney is utterly incomprehensible.

I also have to wonder how well the various parodies will resonate with modern filmgoers. Yes, Laurentz’s lushly mounted melodrama echoes director Douglas Sirk’s opulent 1950s weepers (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, et al). Yes, Tatum’s song-and-dance number brilliantly riffs Gene Kelly sailor-on-shore musicals such as Anchors Away and On the Town.

Yes, Johansson’s water ballet sequence unerringly spoofs Esther Williams efforts such as Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid. Yes, Hobie is a stitch in his drawling ode to cinematically prolific singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Yes, Baird’s sword-and-sandals chest-thumping echoes 1950s biblical epics such as David and Bathsheba and The Robe, not to mention The Ten Commandments.

And yes, Swinton’s waspish Thacker sisters poke well-deserved fun at feuding Golden Age Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (while borrowing the “rival twins” angle from advice columnists Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther Friedman, better known as, respectively, Ann Landers and Abigail “Dear Abby” Van Buren).

But all this was well over half a century ago. How many people will recognize, or even notice, all the in-jokes? More to the point, nothing is really done with all these absurdist echoes from the past. Production designer Jess Gonchor does a beautiful job of making them all look authentic, but it’s a case of being all dressed up, with nowhere to go. The jokes fall flat, and any fitful absurdist momentum is crushed beneath Brolin’s great stone face.

It feels like Joel and Ethan Coen have made a Hollywood parody for themselves and a select group of like-minded friends and colleagues ... who, I suspect, will be the only ones watching this maladroit mess.

Time to bury this Caesar. There’s certainly very little to praise.

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