Channing Tatum Feature

Hail, Caesar! Review: Lack of Focus is the Name of the Game, Plus No Dames

Monday, February 08, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Hail, Caesar!

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Large sections of Hail, Caesar! are, technically speaking, unnecessary from a structural standpoint. But utility is not everything. In fact, if it were not for the digressions from the movie's A-plot – a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer (Josh Brolin) is tasked with finding the kidnapped star (George Clooney) of the studio's prestige picture that shares the title of the movie in question – there would not be much to it. Those seemingly illogical jags into the zany corners of film history, both in front of and behind the camera, are what bring flavor to the movie.

That is not to say that the main thrust of the film is lacking in entertainment. It's plenty witty and says a lot about Hollywood and American culture of both the '50s and today. Brolin's Eddie Mannix character is a man filled with deep insecurities about his place in the world. Like many men whose pride or workaholism cause them to dismiss therapy, his anxieties manifest themselves as devout Catholic faith. His exhausted priest can't fake any interest in Eddie's banal “sins,” like having trouble with quitting smoking. But he never fails to make that trip to church every day – the Coens cut to closeups of Eddie's watch to punctuate the clockwork nature of his trips to the dusty confession booth.

Eddie's work for the studio is a little blander, although it's an extension of the Catholicism that opens Hail, Caesar! He can never shake his sense of obligation, which forms the basis of his character arc – should he leave his “babysitter” job for a bunch of perpetual screwup movie stars to take a healthy salary with an airline company? There's less life to him as he goes about his job, which is intentional on the writer-director brothers' part. But the straight man clothes don't fit him as well, cinematically, as the private, vulnerably hilarious insecurities he wears intermittently.

Eddie does serve as the audience's eyes and ears for the face-saving oddness that was 1950s Hollywood, perpetually trying to promote its beloved stars as ne'er do wrongs interested in only the most wholesome of pursuits. This is, of course, a lie. It's Eddie's job to keep up the lie, no matter how many weird situations the stars put themselves in. The difficulty of covering up unexpected pregnancies or drunk-driving hit-and-run accidents with professional fall guys is funny because it highlights the classic school dilemma – it's harder to develop a novel cheating scheme than it is to study for the test. But it's so much fun to hear Scarlett Johansson's complaints about being unable to fit into her “fish ass” mermaid costume and to see Alden Ehrenreich's hayseed western star fail spectacularly when the studio forces him into a society romance.

Those moments, along with Tilda Swinton's feuding twin gossip columnists and a summit of greater Los Angeles's religious leaders to determine the relative tastefulness of the film-within-a-film Hail, Caesar!'s depiction of Jesus Christ – but really to bicker over religious semantics – are what make the film come together despite its wobblier parts.

George Clooney's kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock, is one of the lesser elements of the movie. It's a fairly thankless role, playing what amounts to a speaking MacGuffin. Clooney is largely in the movie to make a few silly faces, fall down, and succumb to Marxist ideology. There is surface-level humor to the Whitlock character, but he's a little undercooked for being the film's mechanical goal.
The same can somewhat be said for the gay panic joke animating the sequence with Channing Tatum as Hail, Caesar!'s Gene Kelly stand-in, Burt Gurney. On the set of the sailor musical-comedy No Dames, Tatum goes all out with the dancing and a surprisingly strong singing voice. It's a dazzling display of technical proficiency on his end, but it boils down to a joke about how a bunch of guys on a boat can seem a little, y'know, non-heteronormative. That's fine as a comment on the prudishness and anti-gay sentiment of the times. But it's a bit one-note and slightly off base because Kelly and Frank Sinatra's On the Town, which provides the visual template for this scene, was about a few sailors desperate for some female companionship after spending too long at sea – it was shockingly sexualized, albeit toward the hetero persuasion, for the time. But everyone is so exuberant in selling it, and the Coens so adept at the musical visual style of boxy and presentational shot construction, that it works despite the tired joke at its heart. It is also, like most of the film's most fun moments, not really needed in the way that it's done -- it's largely just an exercise in the fun of a genre that has not been in favor for a long time.

But that's fine. The Coens set out to make a love letter to an era of American cinema and they largely succeed, even if it's a little shaggy and unconnected. It feels good in its looseness and the brothers' mythic ability to create dialogue and goofy character names – hello, Laurence Laurentz and, well, everyone – remains intact. Like Burn After Reading, it is entirely possible this one will become something of an ear worm, sticking itself in your mind and not letting go. When the would-be flaws are the strongest portion of a film, that's a good sign.

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