Set inside of Hollywood's golden age of bright cheesiness, 1951, this latest caper from the Coen Brothers has gobs and gobs of distraction on it's surface. So much so that you might not even notice that it actually is about something underneath all that cheese and glam. Mannix is mulling over the idea of leaving his hard job of long hours for something else that is tempting, but he feels is lacking in some way. Then one of the studio's biggest actors (and star of their new epic "Hail Caesar," a story of Christ told from the perspective of a Roman soldier), Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney) goes missing! He's actually been kidnapped by commies -- a bunch of Hollywood writers who came up with a ransom scheme to get the money they believe they deserve. They sit around and fill Baird's head with communism while Mannix continues to take one problem at a time.
This one thing at a time attitude is where the distraction comes in. Every time Mannix visits a different film set, we get a lengthy view into the world of filmmaking, which may or may not be your cup of tea, but it sure was mine. Water sets, tap dancing scenes, cowboy flicks, period drama romances, all with their own thing going on and their own problems. Played for comedy, and really quite amusing. I was almost disappointed at times when we didn't get to see a second take -- or the third take -- and instead had to move along. Here we are introduced to the film's wide spread of big-name talent, most of whom are really no more than a fun cameo. Like Jonah Hill's very amusing part, or Ralph Fiennes' humorously refined but irritated director. Everyone is some stereotype or another. Scarlett Johansson was unexpected in a part that reminded me slightly of Lena Lamont of Singing in the Rain. Tilda Swinton's duel-role was brilliant. And Channing Tatum was... well, more then I expected.
|Hail to the guy who leads?|
Some of the characters felt unnecessary if you think about it. But, at the same time, I wonder if you go even deeper, would they all eventually make some kind of sense? I certainly get the feeling that the film is very purposeful; more purposeful than meets the eye. To get to the theme and the message of the story I had to go deeper than I expected to considering the style of the storytelling and the fun and quirky atmosphere, but there it is. Maybe Tilda Swinton didn't need to play one, let alone two characters, maybe she did, but some of these characters do play into a purpose, and drive home a rather abstract, but interesting idea.
Of course this is most obviously found in our lead Mannix. Josh Brolin hits the perfect key with this guy, by the way -- as he always does. He's a great lead, and the character is a powerful guy; he has respect and authority, but he also is very religious going to confession every day. He tries very hard to make people happy, especially his wife (Zelda Fitz-- I mean Alison Pill) who wants him to quit smoking. He seems very much like the boss, but of course he has a boss of his own, albeit an absent one. Then there's Baird. He's not a really likable character and Clooney plays him well in that vein. He's a huge actor. Mention his name and people go "Ohhh!" But he's an empty coconut if ever there was one. He has an influential voice but his words are given to him -- by a script, or by a commie, or couple hard slaps upside the head. He's importance in on the surface only.
|Hail to the guy who looks like the leader?|
Then there's the guy who you wouldn't think is important but really is. That's Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. Hobie is a smaller-time lead; the cowboy guy. He's always in the pursuit of doing something right, whether it be a handstand on a horse, or, when he's moved over to the posh romantic drama, saying that line just as he's supposed to. Maybe he doesn't have the talent for certain things, but he's a dedicated worker and does everything he's given to do the very best that he can. And in the end that devotion makes him a pivotal character to the plot. Ehrenreich of course is a delight to watch which helps even more -- he has that screen presence that makes everything he does twice as interesting, and then he actually does quite a lot of interesting things! He's a dedicated performer himself, learning those lasso tricks. And he was the movie's scene-stealer, hands down.
And Mannix himself, as high up as he is, is only a background worker. The movie studio would fall apart without him, but he gets very little of the glory. However he (and we) discover the importance of the way things work, and get a reinvigorated belief in the importance of the work being done. (A little bit of a love-letter to film never hurts!) The movie's multiple layers of the movie within the movie is neat and draws some interesting parallels, but at the same time, there is a jumbled aspect going on that is difficult to see through, with all those distractions of so many films being placed together in this one. I was impressed at how neatly everything tied together though, in the end. I expected it to be more pointless going in.
|If only it were so simple. If only it were so simple. If only...|
I can certainly understand criticism of this film, as it is very unusual, and not what one might naturally expect it to be. It has the plot of, I guess, I popcorn flick, with it's bright-and-breezy entertainment qualities, and what seems like a main arc of trying to recover the missing actor. That's something that could very easily go action-y in the final act, but instead the film at the surface stays the same; light and inconsequential. Underneath builds the mildly abstract and not exactly prominent ideas of power, authority, and dedication that is driven by characters; characters, who, for the most part, don't get it any more than we do. For them, it's just another eventful day. But it was an important day, and this film does have some interesting things to say, in typical, understated Coen fashion. It may not a be a masterpiece, but if you want more from it than a plethora of quirky performances, hearty laughs and light, colorful entertainment, it's there for you to find.