Movie review: Hail, Caesar! a comedy triumph for the Coens

Directors, screenwriters and producers Joel and Ethan Coen attend the premiere of 'True Grit' at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Directors, screenwriters and producers Joel and Ethan Coen attend the premiere of 'True Grit' at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

- Joel and Ethan Coen may be among the most acclaimed filmmakers of their generation, but their record when it comes to comedy has been somewhat checkered. 

Sure, everybody loves The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. But nobody especially liked Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers (although the latter has its defenders.) Opinion on O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading is more divisive. 

The Coens’ newest comedy, Hail, Caesar!, doesn’t quite crack the very top tier of Coen movies. It’s scattered, it’s full of ideas that don’t quite connect with each other, and it’s so overstuffed with good actors that a lot of them don’t even get to speak. 

But despite all that, this is the most I’ve laughed a Coen comedy probably since Lebowski. The humor is operating at a strange key that won’t be for everyone, but I for one couldn’t stop chuckling. 

Hail, Caesar! is set in the early 1950s, and centers around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood executive/fixer. The plot follows Mannix over the course of a couple of days, managing strange actors and directors and even stranger movies, while also facing a professional crossroads of his own. 

The plot consists of a whole bunch of loosely connected ideas, and one gets the sense that a lot of them are Hollywood-based nuggets the Coens have come up with over the years and ultimately decided to throw into the same movie. George Clooney is a movie star, in a Ben Hur-like religious epic, who is kidnapped by a cell of Communist screenwriters. Scarlett Johansson, in her first Coen outing since The Man Who Wasn’t There in 2001, plays an Esther Williams-type swimming movie star who becomes pregnant. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes quite an impression as a young cowboy actor who’s “promoted” to dramatic actor. Channing Tatum plays the star of a sailor musical, and gets to indulge in a lengthy, elaborate song-and-dance number. 

And if that’s not enough, there are rival, twin-sister gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton. There’s also room for fantastic, one-scene cameos from Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes and even Christopher Lambert. 

Everything involving the Communist screenwriters is pure gold. The Coens’ best movies always have inept kidnapping plots in them, and this is no exception, as everyone in these scenes in doing something hilarious pretty much at all times. Actors like Alex Karpovsky, David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler and Fisher Stevens earn big laughs even if they’re not speaking. Even Herbert Marcuse shows up! As for Clooney, his efforts at comedy have had mixed success, with and without the Coens, as a little bit of his mugging can go a long way. But he’s just right here as a dimwit who develops Stockholm Syndrome over 24 hours. 

The other best scene of the movie has Brolin meeting with a rabbi, priest, reverend and padre to go over the religious sensitivity aspects of the religious picture. It’s a brilliant little mini-play, with Robert Picardo’s rabbi unseating all three A Serious Man clerics as the best rabbi in Coen history. 

Hail, Caesar! reminded me a lot, oddly enough, of Inherent Vice, another period story set in Los Angeles, in which the plot doesn’t really matter all that much, there are lots of detours into weird L.A. corners, and Josh Brolin is on hand as the square-jawed straight man. But it’s not nearly as dark as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon adaptation- in fact, it ends on a downright sunny note. It’s like the ending of A Serious Man, only the exact opposite. 

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