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Mark Steyn

Mark at the Movies

Hail, Caesar!

On the eve of the Oscars, here's a new film from the Coen brothers that's far droller and more genuinely subversive of Hollywood than the self-serving leaden propagandizing of Trumbo. As producers, directors, writers and pseudonymous editors, Joel and Ethan Coen have spent their careers successfully mining a contemporary seam of old-time studio forms such as screwball and noir. This time they have to be proficient at every genre - from elegant drawing-room comedy to splashy aquatic musicals.

Hail, Caesar! is a day in the life of a 1951 studio fixer called "Eddie Mannix". There once was a real-life Eddie Mannix who performed for decades the same services for Louis B Mayer at MGM, deep-sixing such image complications as Greta Garbo's lesbian flings and Joan Crawford's low-budget porno past. The actual Mannix was a tough cookie who, according to persistent rumor, arranged his first wife's fatal car accident and the suicide of his second wife's lover. The Coens' Mannix, despite the dark period physicality of Josh Brolin, is an altogether more benign and indeed moral figure, a straight shooter on the square. What they took from the original is his terrific name and the scope of his job. This particular day in 1951 offers a typical range of problems for Brolin's Mannix: a brassy bathing beauty with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a sword'n'sandals hunk with a lavender-perfumed past, a singing cowboy having a tough time wrapping his twang around Noël Coward dialogue...

Helping the Coens to recreate Hollywood at the mermaid-tail-end of the golden age are a host of today's big names, often in little more than one-scene cameos - or one shot, in the case of Dolph Lundgren. Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams star with an Ingrid Bergman problem for whom Eddie concocts a Loretta Young solution (in the Thirties, MGM arranged for Miss Young, impregnated by Clark Gable, to have her newborn quietly dropped off at an orphanage and then adopted back a couple of days later). Tilda Swinton does double duty as twin-sister gossip-columnist rivals modeled on - at least in terms of their lurid millinery - Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Channing Tatum is a muscular Gene Kelly type springing through sailors-on-leave numbers while nursing a dark secret that leads him finally to take his leave on a vessel of a very different kind. Frances McDormand plays the studio film-cutter with a tip to MGM's Margaret Booth. And George Clooney, who really should do more comedy instead of plonking finger-wagging snoozefests like Tomorrowland, is the delightfully dimwitted leading man of a Quo Vadis-like Biblical epic (borrowing Ben Hur's actual subtitle: A Tale of the Christ) who, as the picture is about to wrap, unfortunately gets mickey-finned and kidnapped by a conspiracy of Communist screenwriters.

The big set-pieces along the way are literal showstoppers: The plot comes to a halt so we can all admire the Coens' evocation of long defunct Hollywood formula in the films-within-the-film. They're a bit hit-and-miss: Even aided by computer technology ejaculating her up through the blowhole of a whale, Miss Johansson is no Esther Williams. And "No Dames", the big number for Channing Tatum and his prancing sailors (much admired by critics for its blithely unaware tight-trousered homoeroticism), doesn't quite have the buoyancy of the real thing in On The Town, Anchors Aweigh or South Pacific. (I would be interested to know what Stanley Donen makes of it.) But the double-act between singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and effete émigré director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), as the latter attempts with infinite, inscrutable patience to give the former a line-reading for a sophisticated drama entirely beyond him, is a thing of beauty, like an arthouse Abbott & Costello. Poor Hobie even has difficulty with the pronunciation of the director's pretentiously schizophrenic name - Lau-rence Lau-rentz - which is pretty funny played by a guy called "Rafe" "Fines".

I'm not sure I've ever previously been aware of Alden Ehrenreich, but he steals the show from far more lustrous names here: He's a very good actor playing a very bad actor. Hobie was originally an equine stuntman who got catapulted into speaking roles and then singing roles and whom the studio now wants to upgrade beyond B-filler cowboy capers. He's hard-working, easy-going and eager to please. At the premiere of Lazy Ol' Moon, he's momentarily disappointed because his heartfelt western ballad is upstaged by some comic business involving the water trough, but, when he sees how much the audience likes it, he's happy, too. There's a lovely moment at the nightclub afterwards when he and his studio-ordered date, a Carmen Miranda type, break into "The Glory Of Love" at their dining table. But, though naïve and guileless, he has a keen eye and sound instincts, and, as in the movies, he saves the day.

The plot? Well, Lockheed have made Josh Brolin's Eddie an offer: Come and work for them - better pay, civilized hours, and you'd be spending your days on something important, not just cleaning up for circus freaks. Eddie dithers, unable to give the Lockheed headhunter a final answer. And then his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped by Commie writers... The Coen brothers' first draft set the action in the Twenties, but at some point they decided to move it to the era of HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. And so it turns out the Lockheed guy is wrong: Eddie isn't just airbrushing problematic pregnancies and homosexual liaisons; whether he knows it or not, he's dealing with the biggest geopolitical issue of the day. A Soviet submarine even puts in an appearance.

There's none of the usual sentimentalized idealism about the red screenwriters here. It's a Soviet cell of dour, resentful, misshapen types who, having shanghaied George Clooney's character to a beach house in Malibu, explain that they've been slipping Communist sub-texts into their films for years, but are irked that the studio gets all the profits and they have to make do with their pitiful salaries. Clooney's befuddled Baird Whitlock, who spends the entire picture in his Roman centurion's garb, complete with sword, is fascinated by his kidnappers and asks them to explain this Communism business to him. The real Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal) is present and endeavors to instruct the airheaded Baird in power differentials, and Baird responds yeah, he totally gets that because he was once on a bender in San Berdoo with Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye made Baird shave Danny's back supposedly for an upcoming role but then it turned out it wasn't for a role, it was just 'cause Danny Kaye wanted to make Baird shave his back...

George Clooney plays this scene brilliantly, and then tops it with one in which he tells Josh Brolin that there's this big book that explains everything and it even has the same name as the studio - Capitol Pictures - but the book spells it with a K...

And Brolin rises from his desk and starts slapping Clooney around, and tells him he never wants to hear that again. One is reluctant to seek political messages in today's Hollywood, but Clooney's hammy wide-eyed sincerity in the finale of his Biblical epic, prompting tears from the crew, certainly seems to be suggesting that, in all their backlot fakery, these guys meant it.

The film doesn't seem to be doing much business, and the Loretta Young references won't mean much beyond the TCM set. But it's a surprisingly sharp-eyed view of a period contemporary Hollywood (including Clooney) usually reduces to tedious self-mythologizing - and apparently it all began as a casual suggestion to George Clooney during the shooting of O Brother, Where Art Thou? As Joel Coen told a Telegraph interviewer the other day, "You're hanging around the set and you've got to make conversation somehow. We told George his character would be a gasbaggy fathead, and for some reason that really appealed to him."

"Gasbaggy fathead is his forte," added Ethan.

Hmm...

from Mark at the Movies, February 27, 2016

 

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