Friday, November 25, 2016

Hail Caesar! (USA/UK, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

There's a truism about movies that attempt to recreate the past that is well-known to scholars of ancient reception - that no matter how hard they try to be 'accurate', these movies always give away the time in which they were actually made. The art deco Egypt of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra is self-evidently a product of the 1930s, whilst Joseph L. Mankiewicz's movie of the same title can only date to the 1960s. So it is, if in a different manner, with Joel and Ethan Coen's attempt to recreate the Hollywood of 1951. It opens with what is supposedly footage from a 1951 Biblical/Roman epic, the eponymous Hail, Caesar!, subtitled in best Ben-Hur fashion, 'A Tale of the Christ'. But it just doesn't look quite right. These are not Mervyn LeRoy or William Wyler shots from the 1950s - they are Coen Brothers/Roger Deakin shots from 2016, and they just betray themselves, for all that they've got some things, such as the colour, exactly right.

Hail, Caesar! is an enjoyable movie - fun, and funny. It's very much a collection of episodes rather than a coherent story, but the best of the episodes are well worth it. Best of all is Channing Tatum's dance number - Tatum can't quite carry off the Gene Kelly thing of being a song-and-dance man whilst exuding heteronormative masculinity, but he does his best. There's also a great scene where Hail, Caesar!, the movie within the movie. is checked for any potential offensive content with four religious leaders who can't agree.

This is a movie very much of cameos. No-one apart from Josh Brolin as central fixer Eddie Mannix or George Clooney's idiot actor Baird Whitlock are on screen for very long. Scarlett Johannsen as out-of-control starlet DeeAnna Moran has a particularly small role considering how much she's in the movie's publicity - she only has two short scenes. The same is true of Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz, finally finding his comedy persona, and Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Blink, and you will miss Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun, Dolph Lundgren as a Russian submarine commander, Christopher Lambert as a Scandinavian director, and a heavily made-up John Bluthal as real-life Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Surprisingly for a Coen Brothers movie, there appears to be very little subtext here. This is not as weighty a movie as No Country For Old Men or Fargo, nor does it even have the substance of relatively frothy movies such as Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou? But it's still worth seeing. It also makes an interesting pair with this year's Trumbo, since where Trumbo lionizes the Communist-leaning screenwriters of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! gives them a good kicking. 

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