Hail, Caesar! (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): There is no business like movie business

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The Coen brothers have never been boring throughout their long, illustrious career. For instance, after a gripping cold-blooded neo-noir thriller in their terrific debut film “Blood Simple” (1985), they went all the way for cheerful wackiness in “Raising Arizona” (1987), and then they swung into the dry, stark territories of “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) and “Barton Fink” (1991), and then they swung back to the deranged classic screwball comedy of “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994).

Their latest film “Hail, Caesar!” proves again their consistently bouncy tendency. After a gray melancholic music drama in their previous film “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), the Coen brothers switch themselves onto a more lightweight and colorful mode here, and they have a fluffy but delicious fun with classic Hollywood film genres during the 1950s.

As Carter Burwell’s score and Michael Gambon’s narration set the wry deadpan tone of the film during the opening scene, we are introduced to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer working for Capitol Pictures as the head of physical production. His main job is preventing any public scandal of its movie stars while maintaining their precious public images, and, as shown from his another confession session with a priest, he has felt conflicted over his dirty thankless works for protecting the interests of the studio. He also feels guilty about how his strenuous job often keeps him from spending time with his dear family, and he is certainly tempted when a lucrative job offer with considerable incentives comes to him at one point, though he does not give any affirmative answer.

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Anyway, his another day at Capitol Pictures is busy as usual. Everyone expects a lot from the upcoming Roman epic drama film “Hail, Caesar!” while it is still in the middle of production at the studio, and there is an absurd moment when Mannix has a meeting with several religious figures for making it sure that it does not look offensive to Christian or Jewish audiences as a movie whose subtitle is “A tale of the Christ”. In addition, he must take care of the unexpected pregnancy of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) before it is turned into the latest Hollywood scandal, and he is going to use other two studio stars as a diversion for competing twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton).

And then there comes another trouble. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the aforementioned movie, is suddenly disappeared, and Mannix soon receives a message from ‘the Future’, who demands $100,000 for sending back Whitlock. Mannix is willing to solve this potentially disastrous problem as soon as he can, and he quickly secures the ransom money in a rather tight briefcase, but, as you can expect from any Coen brothers movie, the movie takes a number of odd plot turns as he is trying to take care of other matters as well as this kidnapping problem.

Leisurely walking around many different genres, the Coen brothers provide us various goodies to enjoy. While Mannix’s no-nonsense tough guy attitude evokes film noir, several amusing scenes from Whitlock’s latest film poke fun at “The Robe” (1953), “Ben-Hur” (1959), and many other Roman epic drama movies made during the 1950s, and a grand water choreography sequence with Moran and lovely female extras is clearly a send-up of Esther Williams movies. While you will probably be tickled by a sly musical dance number sequence with naughty sexual undertone, one of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from when young western film star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is put into a film where this simple-minded lad is apparently miscast. Even before the end of the first take, sophisticated European director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) becomes quite frustrated with Doyle’s strained acting, and that leads to a hilarious moment when Laurentz repeatedly tries to have his problematic actor deliver a certain line right.

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In the meantime, Whitlock finds himself stuck in a weird situation which adds another period genre to the movie. While he is one of the most dashing Hollywood stars, George Clooney can also look silly and clownish as shown from his previous collaborations with the Coen brothers including “Burn After Reading” (2008), and his deft comedy skill is utilized well as his half-wit character is ‘enlightened’ by the people behind his kidnapping.

While Whitlock and many wacky supporting characters in the movie are more or less than puppets to be wielded and manipulated, the movie cares a bit about Mannix and a few other characters. Josh Brolin, who previously collaborated with the Coen brothers in “True Grit” (2010), is dependable as a solid straight center to hold and support everything in the film, and the Coen brothers assembled an impressive array of cast members around Brolin. In addition to Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Alison Pill get each own small moment, and you may recognize familiar veteran actors including Fred Melamed, Fisher Stevens, Alex Karpovsky, Christopher Lambert, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, and Wayne Knight (you may not notice the very brief appearance of Dolph Lundgren, by the way).

Amidst this bountiful heap of performers to delight your eyes, Alden Ehrenreich steals the show as the ace in the hole of the movie. When Doyle happens to have a date with Carlotta Valdez (Verónica Osorio) as arranged by Mannix, it does not take much time for her to be charmed by his folksy sweetness, and we cannot help but smile as they come to fall in genuine love with each other. I also like the scene where Doyle attends the premiere of his new western film; because he just did his job as much as paid (and fed) during the production, he does not think that highly of his movie, but he comes to have a small revelation not so far from that memorable scene in Preston Sturges’s classic comedy film “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941).

“Hail, Caesar!” gleefully holds its tongue in the cheek from the beginning to the end, but its absurd satire comes with care and affection toward its targets to be lampooned. The movie may be all about styles, but it is a joyful pastiche to savor, and we get good laughs as many Hollywood archetypes are cheerfully juggled around its goofy plot. After all, there is no business like movie business, right?

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