Comedy gold 

The Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! rules

The truth is, I went into Hail, Caesar! in a murderous temper, and I intended to stay that way. But damn it, the Coen brothers managed to turn my mood around with their light-as-air, infectiously joyful comedy.

The film centers on a day in the life of movie executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he solves problems at Capitol Pictures during the heyday of 1950s Hollywood epic filmmaking. In typical Coen brothers fashion, the picture overflows with plotlines. Firstly, we have the production of Hail, Caesar! starring a troublemaker named Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney. The film within a film very much resembles biblical epics of the day, Ben Hur in particular. In a pre 9/11 world, a couple of extras have little trouble kidnapping Whitlock and delivering him to a group of communist scriptwriters who fill the impressionable actor with finger sandwiches and revolutionary ideas.

Meanwhile, we have a critically reverent melodrama with Laurence Laurentz in the director's seat, played with perfect comedic timing by Ralph Fiennes. The studio's authentic Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), seems like a real dolt at first but proves more competent at solving the film's central mystery than anyone would have supposed. Scarlett Johansson shows up as a foul-mouthed mermaid in one of those epic Hollywood musicals with a lot of synchronized swimming. The camera lingers on a dazzling overhead shot of Johansson shooting out of the water (her face a mixture of delight and terror) and it was at that moment that I really started to appreciate what the Coens have given us. Plenty of comedies are funny enough, but rarely do they pay much attention to these extraneous details; you're not going to see Adam Sandler in a carefully choreographed musical number anytime soon.

click to enlarge Ancient meteorologists.
  • Ancient meteorologists.

Hail, Caesar! fully embraces the idea that really all plotlines are McGuffins for the stuff we actually want to see, namely, stars interacting with one another in glamorous, fantastical ways. When Channing Tatum breaks into a singing and dancing number with a bunch of sailors, it does little to advance the plot, yet it means everything for the film's central thesis: Films are delightful, irreverent moments that have real worth in a world that can often seem cruel and thankless.

I've overheard a lot of Internet noise calling the film a satire—and a failed, muddled one at that—but I don't know if satire is the right word for what's happening here. To me, a satire should exaggerate and critique the thing it's ribbing on, but what we have instead is closer to a parallel reimagining of how these movies actually were. Jesus Christ really does have a heavenly bit part in Ben Hur, same as the film-within-the-film. And the musical numbers of the day were every bit as cheesy as these re-creations. One of the film's funniest scenes features a panel of theologians brought in by the studio to legitimize the depiction of Christ. The priest explains that it's more accurate to call Jesus the "Son of God," than God himself, while the Rabbi argues that Christ isn't the messiah at all, but meh, it's fine, he's seen worse films.

Hail, Caesar! reminds me a little of the Coen brothers' very best comedy, The Big Lebowski. Nothing can rival the unforgettable characters that film produced, but this has a similar energy and structure. So many interweaving plotlines will lend the movie to multiple viewings, and there's even a suitcase full of money that seems super important but maybe isn't really in the end. Hail, Caesar! is a great surprise for film lovers looking for a mood enhancer in these final, gloomy weeks of winter.

Hail Caesar! continues at the Carmike 12.

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