Sunday 6 March 2016

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison reviews the Coen Bros Hail Caesar

It’s a pity I hadn’t seen Hail Caesar (Ethan & Joel Coen, USA, 2016) before I wrote up Trumbo  (Jay Roach, USA, 2015). The films both cover fifties Hollywood and they both show meetings of Communist screenwriters but if you contrast the earnest motivated individuals who surround Bryan Cranston with the snarling ideologues in the Cohens’ film you get the measure of the two. The Communist extras doping Clooney’s goblet of wine and kidnapping him for a ransom gets him to their Malibu beachside pad and into a discussion of dialectics with John Bluthal’s “Professor Marcuse.” 

Hail Caesar puts the screenwriters meeting alongside Josh Brolin’s studio goon Eddie Mannix (an interesting comparison with the corresponding character in the Joseph Hayes novella “My Face for the World to See”)  and the assembled representatives of Judeo-
Christianity  (“parishes, flocks, Temples”) getting stuck into theological differences instead of vetting the script for his Biblical epic. 

Intriguingly since Muslim fundamentalists showed up, we’ve had this selection of films putting the boot into religion – PK (Rajkumar Hirani, India, 2014)  Le Tout Nouveau Testament (Jaco van Dormael, Belgium,2016) to go with Hail Caesar. For someone who grew up with Song of Bernadette (Henry King, USA, 1943) and The Robe (Henry Koster, USA, 1953) this is something of a shock. What happens next it will be interesting to see.

Hail Caesar is a pastiche like The Bad & the Beautiful, (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1952),  Star Is Born (William Wellman, USA, 1937, & George Cukor, USA, 1954) or just about any Hollywood movie. Capitol Pictures, back from The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 1998), has a Wallace Beery Conference Room though they have Paramount posters in the corridor outside. Their productions resemble MGM efforts. George Clooney’s soldiers on the road gets us into their Tale of the Christ. Scarlett Johansson does a menacingly over-produced Esther Williams number and they play these straight until his horse jerks Clooney out of shot and Scarlet has to steady herself on the trapeze rope. We’ve also got Channing Tatum performing “Merrily We Dance”, a Gene Kelly sailor dance number - remarkably agilely,though they have broken it up into bite size chunks for him, and singing cowboy Alden Ehrenreich offering to do the horseback handstand one more time before he’s hijacked into a society drama in evening clothes. Was the Tony Richardson The Loved One (USA, 1965) the last time we saw that one mined for laughs? 

It’s easy to spot holes. We know that Esther Williams sex life had dramas of its own without needing Loretta Young’s, a Moviola bulb doesn’t get hot enough to melt a piece of film and they don’t play live orchestra music while filming big scenes. These don’t matter as much as the things that they get maliciously close to right - Ehrenreich’s scene salvaged in McDormand’s cutting room, the nice first downward shots of  Clooney’s cleat helmet soldiers on the road, which would have fitted into Quo Vadis (Mervyn Leroy, USA, 1951) or Ben Hur (William Wyler, USA, 1959) or director Fiennes worked onto a frenzy slapping away Ehrenreich’s hands when he mimics direction. 

Finally the Cohens’ take on pre-TV Hollywood is the right one - a crass Technicolor cesspool that was the most interesting thing  happening then. 

Hail Caesar, Directors Ethan & Joel Cohen, USA, 2016, with Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum. 106 minutes 

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