Magazine article Variety

Hail, Caesar!

Magazine article Variety

Hail, Caesar!

Article excerpt

FILM REVIEW/BERLIN

Hail, Caesar!

DIRECTORS: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

STARRING: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich

If there's such a thing as pokerfaced exuberance, you can feel it in every loving, teasing frame of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Hail, Caesar!," an inside-showbiz lark that regards the 1950s studio system with the utmost skepticism even as it becomes an expression of movie love at its purest. Starring Josh Brolin as a hard-working industry "fixer" tasked with keeping bigbudget productions on track and wayward stars in line, this gorgeously crafted romp through the backlots and Malibu enclaves of Hollywood's Golden Age tosses off plenty of eccentric comedy and musical razzle-dazzle before taking on richer, more ruminative dimensions, ultimately landing on the funny-sad question of whether life is but a dream factory. Although it boasts enough marquee names and splashy, crowd-pleasing angles to deliver good returns for Universal, this is as strange and singular an offering as anything the Coens have ever done, and as such, its more thoughtful, elusive undertones could stand in the way of broader public acceptance. The picture bows Stateside Feb. 5, a week before premiering overseas as the Berlin Film Festival's openingnight attraction.

The high-powered Hollywood fixer has been enjoying an on-screen minirenaissance, as evidenced by Showtime's Liev Schreiber-starring "Ray Donovan" and now the Coen brothers' lavishly appointed throwback to an earlier era of industry damage control, as overseen here by the character of Eddie Mannix (Brolin), a fictionalized composite of the real-life studio VP Mannix and his head of publicity, Howard Strickling. The various scandals that Mannix and Strickling covered up during their decades working together at MGM could easily furnish several films, but the Coens have steered clear of salaciousness in favor of a jaundiced but affectionate character study, treating Brolin's eternally putupon Eddie as a beacon of relative sanity and intelligence in a world overrun by eccentricity, venality and corruption.

Indeed, had the Coens not already made a film called "A Serious Man," neither the title nor the theological baggage would have been misapplied to this version of Eddie, a hardworking Catholic family man first seen unburdening his soul to a priest, and not just because he's sneaked a few cigarettes behind his wife's back. Eddie is tasked by Capitol Pictures with preserving the '50s illusion of Hollywood glamour and propriety at a time of pervasive moral crackdown and sociopolitical upheaval.

His not-always-savory steps can include anything from smacking around an up-and-coming actress caught in an illicit photo shoot to arranging for prized star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson, terrifically brassy) to secretly adopt her own out-of-wedlock child. It also means enforcing the studio's questionable decision to cast handsome, dumb-asa-stump cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, superb), an audience hit in a recent string of Westerns, in an elegant parlor drama called "Merrily We Dance" - to the quiet chagrin of auteur Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), in one of the film's most delicious scenes.

But Eddie's stress load kicks up a notch with the sudden disappearance of Capitol's top star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is abducted from the set of an expensive Roman epic called "Hail, Caesar!" clearly modeled on "Ben-Hur." And so it falls to the fixer to track down Baird and bring him back, all while cleverly avoiding the threats and insinuations of rival Hollywood gossip columnists (and identical twin sisters) Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton in a succession of Hedda Hopper-esque hats. …

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