11 March 2016

Hail, Caesar! review

Well, it's definitely a Coen Brothers film.

Off-kilter, unfocused and (as always) totally unique, your mileage will vary with Hail, Caesar! depending on how much patience you have with the Coen Brothers' particular brand of film-making. Even within the ranks of just their comedy films it has to be one of their least accessible to date thanks to a focus on theme over story, something that goes a long way towards explaining why popular opinion of this film differs so much between critics and audience.

Set in what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! follows Capitol Pictures head of production Eddie Mannix over the course of a standard working day. This sees him try to deal with a number of issues facing the studio, including the disappearance of star Baird Whitlock, the pregnancy of the unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran, the constant presence of rival identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, and a falling out with director Laurence Laurentz thanks to the studio mandated casting of Western star Hobie Doyle in his latest prestige picture.

Hail, Caesar! is much more interested in the nature of belief than it is any real sort of narrative. Eddie Mannix may be our introduction to the multiple plot threads that Hail, Caesar! deals with, but it is the common theme of belief that really unites them. Whether that be religious belief, political belief, belief in the news or belief in the system, it doesn't matter - Hail, Caesar! posits that these beliefs are ultimately no different from one another, each as likely to be used as comfort as they are misused and abused for personal gain. But what the Coen Brothers actually intended to say about 50's era Hollywod and/or the studio system with Hail, Caesar! remains beyond my reach - not exactly an uncommon occurrence when it comes to their films, but still a frustrating one.

That doesn't change the fact that Hail, Caesar! is still a hugely engaging film though, one in which the Coen Brothers make great use of the trappings of Golden era Hollywood. There is just a lot of fun to be had here, whether that be in the lengthy dance sequence given to Channing Tatum's character Burt Gurney or the aqua-musical afforded to Scarlet Johansson's character DeeAnna Moran, parodies of Gene Kelly and Esther Williams respectively. These sequences have nothing to do with the main story and don't even really resonate with the themes that the film is dealing with, but they are still incredibly entertaining and something not often seen in modern cinema.

And on top of that, Hail, Caesar! is hilarious at times thanks to a truly great cast and some excellent gags. The funniest scene by far sees director Laurence Laurentz trying to teach singing Western star Hobie Doyle how to pronounce a line in an adaptation of a play, and before long the repeated use of the line in question results in it losing any sense of meaning it may have once held. Ralph Fiennes (who plays Laurence Laurentz) is as perfect as he has ever been here and it's always great to see him in another comedic role, but it is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who steals not just this scene but any scene he appears in. His earnest, virtuous and completely innocent Hobie Doyle is quite easily Hail, Caesar!'s best and most memorable creation, and I hope that Ehrenreich sees a major increase in the amount of roles he is being offered following this.

But as much as I enjoyed Hail, Caesar!, there is no denying that ir fails to marry the comedy with the more intelligent subtext quite as well as the Coen Brothers have in other films, and ends up being a good example of why some people find their style of film-making irritating. If you're a fan of the Coen Brothers (or at least willing to give them a chance) and able to accept Hail, Caesar! for the flawed but still worthwhile film that it is then I'm sure you'll find something to take away from it - but if not? Well then this probably just isn't the film for you.

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