Hail, Caesar!

2016 socialist propaganda

Rating: 17/20 (Jen: 18/20)

Plot: A movie studio executive tries to fix a variety of problems--including but not limited to a missing star, a whorish mermaid, a cowboy who can't act, twin gossip columnists, and a secret Communist society--so that Capitol Pictures can complete the Biblical epic that is its biggest release of the year.

This seems to be a divisive movie, and it's for all the wrong reasons. A character--one of the secret Communist society members--says that writers sneak Communist messages into movies all the time. There's nothing sneaky about the messages in this one with its clash between socialists and the capitalistic machine represented by the movie studio (with Lockheed Martin mixed in for reasons that I don't understand) added to the clash between Rome's ideals and those of one of history's greatest socialists--Jesus H. Christ. This might be a movie that Bernie Sanders would get a kick out of actually, and I wouldn't imagine many true Americans liking it very much, mostly because Channing Tatum's character seems a little gay.

Thematically, I'm a little confused, and it's probably because I'm stupid. This movie has a lot of moving parts. There are subplots and subplots for the subplots--subsubplots, I guess--and I know it all connects to a central idea, a metaphor, the pieces of a parable, or the satirical jabbing. Let me know when you've seen this because I'd love to discuss it with you. Of course, it's a Coen brothers' movie, so I'll end up seeing it again (and probably again), so those moving parts might all come together eventually.

But no, it's divisive for different reasons if you look at reviews or message boards. People don't seem to like it, and I can't understand why. I'm the type of movie blogger who has no problem at all when people don't like movies that I don't like. I'll defend my Team Americas and Eraserheads and Star Wars prequels until I'm blue in both face and balls, but I really don't give a shit if people don't like what I like. But this is different for some reason. I don't really understand why people--especially those movie people--don't seem to like this one.

I'm just not sure how anybody who loves movies, especially classic movies, wouldn't at the very least get a kick out of it. One of my favorite things about this movie is how much it drifts from its central narrative. I could fully understand somebody watching this and thinking it's a little all over the place, but that's precisely what I loved about it. It's like the Coens had all these ideas, tried to get rid of some of them, and then shrugged and decided to just use them all anyway.

So they wanted a lengthy Astaire-esque song and dance number, and they put one in there. And, by the way, it put a gigantic smile on my face, so if that's what they wanted to do, they succeeded. I'm sure they care about whether or not Shane from shane-movies is grinning like an idiot in a theater, right?

They wanted to introduce a character with a ridiculous cowboy stunt, so they filmed one and left it in. They wanted a water ballet mermaid Scarlett Johansson (damn!) sequence, and they gave us one that would delight any fan of Busby Bixby films or mermaid cleavage. They wanted a musical western sequence with a little slapstick, and they squeezed one in. They wanted a nearly-pointless side-story with Ralph Fiennes director character (the perplexingly-named Laurence Laurentz) and Alden Ehrenreich's cowboy actor character, and they found a place for it. They wanted a comical discussion between Josh Brolin's character and four spiritual advisers, and they tossed it in even though the average moviegoer might not find any connection whatsoever with the rest of the movie. It does (like I'm convinced every single one of those moving parts) fit into the big ideas. They wanted a lasso trick, so they gave themselves an excuse to toss one in.

In one of the movie's funniest (and probably most typically Coen-esque) scenes, a projectionist has issues with an accessory, and there's absolutely no reason for the scene to exist. But it does, and that's part of what gives the movie this flavor. The string of nods to classic movies and its various genres just tickled all the right spots of this movie fan, especially since it was all so well filmed. Look at that moon! Look at those mermaid tails and that mechanical whale! Look at those tablecloths! Look at that submarine! Look at that line of Roman soldiers!

Sure, it's not a tightly-constructed narrative, but when have the Coen brothers ever given us neatly-packaged stories? Barton Fink? O Brother, Where Art Thou? Hudsucker? Lebowski? These are filmmakers who aren't afraid of tangents, and the audience should, by this time, have learned to embrace them. This movie meanders virtuosically, and the excursions make it a really fun ride.

People also seem upset that Johansson or Jonah Hill or Tatum aren't in the movie all that much, but why do they need to be? Why can't big Hollywood movie stars be auxiliary characters? That's sort of a Coen thing, isn't it?

Those performances are fantastic. Brolin gives us an emotional center, playing the character more like a tortured noir detective than what you'd expect from a studio exec. Clooney overacts, but that's why he's in these movies to begin with and is the perfect 1940s/50s big-time movie star. Fiennes and Ehrenreich are outstanding, and the latter should get a Best Supporting Actor nod. Well, unless I find out that that was a CGI lasso or something. Tilda Swinton is very funny as two completely identical characters. I can imagine the direction for Swinton. "Shouldn't I have some sort of nuances to make the two characters different from each other?" "No, just play them exactly the same way!" The socialists crew have to be the funniest collection of commies ever assembled. Tatum dances more than he delivers lines, and he's great when he does either. McDormand, Johansson, Hill. They're all just so good at fitting into this Coen-esque fantasy land.

The movie looks perfect. It's ambitious. It's mentally challenging. It's stuffed with a cast of characters created by great performers. It made me giggle. It left me guessing. I can't think of a movie I've seen recently that has entertained me in the amount of ways this one did. To me, this is the brother writer/director team at the height of their powers and making the type of movie that people should be expecting them to make. It seems to me that they make two types of pictures--dark dramas with a bit of black comedy along the edges and lighter wacky comedies. This is a bit of a mix. There's some wacky Raising Arizona in here, but there's also a little Barton Fink. And it's a beautiful blend, my friends.

Go see it on the big screen and "squint against the grandeur!"


Josh said...

I forgot to comment after seeing this.

Well, I really liked it. I can't say it was my favorite Cohen Bros. venture, but it definitely fits in their repertoire. I didn't take that many notes. I said something about Johansson's graceful routine going from aquatically angelic to when she opens her mouth and it's unbelievably uncouth. I loved Feinnes in these kind of roles -- articulate, dominant, fast-talking, and witty. The identical twin gag was so worth it. The song and dance routine was hilarious..."No dames/We might see octopuses/No dames/a half a dozen clams..." and then it got gay. It nailed every beat.

My favorite part of the whole movie was the roundtable he had with the 4 patriarchs. Every portion of this movie felt logical and well-understood for a Cohen Bros project. But that meeting of the minds really stuck out to me. It had a much deeper meaning, and I feel like it set the tone for the entire movie's theme and major symbolism. I'd definitely explore that scene more and see how it drives the rest of the movie's story and undertones.

To be honest, though, I didn't really "get it." Is Mannix some sort of Christ-figure?

God, the Cohen's can direct ANY genre. That nailed the look, the characters, the feel, the tone, the sound. Everything felt like either a movie straight from the 50s or a Cohen Bros classic. They have a cinematic intelligence that would make grass growing interesting.

Shane said...

Grass growing, eh? Now I want to see the Coens tackle that Michael Caine bag of hair movie.

I'm sure all my other readers would love to read our further thought on this, but it all happened at the workplace. Sorry, everybody.

Brolin's character is not a Christ figure though. At least that's not the way I see it. The Coen Brothers are a whole lot smarter than I am.