Friday, February 5, 2016

Hilarious ‘Hail, Caesar!’ requires multiple viewings to appreciate myriad jokes

By Steve Crum
Without divulging the central surprise plot element of Hail, Caesar!, let’s just say the brothers Coen have here given a hilarious send-up to a certain post-WWII conspiracy theory that was widely accepted and acted upon in the late 1940’s and early ‘50s. That sad state of affairs is presented with over-the-top parody in this comedic gem. 
Joel and Ethan Coen, sharing honors in the writing, directing, producing and editing, have created a kind of Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of 2016 about political and showbiz events of 1951. Although I loved all the funny, snarky Hollywood references, Hail, Caesar! includes a plethora of inside jokes. For example, movie executives at Capitol Pictures have a designated room for formal discussions, called The Wallace Beery Meeting Room. If you don’t catch the humor in that very title, you are missing the satirical point. Therefore, general public be aware. The Coens are shooting high, maybe over your heads. 
The bottom line premise involves Josh Brolin, well cast as studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, whose job (“Head of Physical Production”) is to keep account of the studio’s actors as well as other production elements. An opening scene shows Mannix tracking down and rescuing a studio actress from what could have been a morality violation resulting in bad publicity. Of course, the studio would not have any of that.  Mannix takes his work very seriously, which makes his very deadpan being even more hilarious. 
When star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped between takes during a filming of a Biblical epic (Whitlock is a Roman officer), Mannix is once again on the trail. Make no mistake, his Mannix name clearly references the real life Eddie Mannix, who was also a studio "fixer." 
Ethan and Joel Coen confer during filming Hail, Caesar!

While the hunt goes on for one of the studio’s top stars, we glimpse other stars on set during various productions. The coolness of Hail, Caesar! is that major stars have been cast as major stars. Even though the names have been changed, it is clear who is being parodied. For example, Clooney’s Whitlock is supposed to be Kirk Douglas in a Spartacus-like movie. Alden Ehrenreich is Hobie Doyle, a Gene Autry type in B-westerns the studio is trying to elevate to dramatic actor. Ehrenreich is superb…and funny. 
Also amusing are Ralph Fiennes as Hobie Doyle’s exasperated director, Laurence Laurentz, Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran (an Esther Williams type), and Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays twin sisters who are opposing gossip columnists. Think Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The latter two were not related, but made livings as sisters of seamy scandal.

Then there is THE highlight of Hail, Caesar!, featuring Channing Tatum, of all people. In a take on Gene Kelly singing and dancing in On the Town or Anchors Aweigh, Tatum’s Burt Gurney sings and acrobatically dances with a group of fellow sailors to the lively Carter Burwell tune, “No Dames.” That the sequence escalates to, well, flamboyance makes it even funnier. 

Incidentally, there are enough references to assume MGM is the basis for Capitol Pictures.

The Coens have laced Hail, Caesar! with enough visuals and double entendres that beg for multiple viewings to appreciate them all. Look for Dolph Lundgren as a submarine commander; overhead swim shots straight out of Busby Berkeley; Veronica Osorio suggesting Carmen Miranda; and the seldom seen lately Christopher Lambert. Frances McDormand has a choice slapstick bit as a cigarette smoking film editor. As a topper, Michael Gambon narrates this Coen opus. 
It is time to see Hail, Caesar! again. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-