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Film review: Coen brothers worship at the Hollywood altar with “Hail, Caesar!”

Intricate, star-studded comedy both mocks and reveres industry’s Golden Age
By: Andrew Westrope,
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“Would that it t’were so simple.”

Ah, but it’s a Coen brothers film.

Over the course of three decades writing and directing their own movies, legendary filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen have established a genre of their own, generally involving underdogs and buffoons navigating hijinks and moral conundrums in distinct American landscapes. Their heroes are unextraordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, their stories written with particular patois and implicit philosophical subtexts. Think “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Their latest – “Hail, Caesar!” – is no exception, although it is a return to farce for the Coens after a recent trio of more somber films. But it’s a farce that resists the temptation to be slight, if not a tome that resists the temptation to be serious.

It begins and ends with the stoic Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer in 1950s Hollywood who keeps stars in line and productions on schedule for Capitol Pictures, the Coens’ fictitious approximation of MGM, as it rolls out marquee entertainments like so many confections on a conveyor belt – “a balm for the ache of a toiling mankind,” as described by the narrating voice of Michael Gambon.

Capitol Pictures’ latest spectacle, a ponderous Biblical epic called “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” is jeopardized when its nitwit star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, again playing a boob for the Coens) is kidnapped for ransom, leaving Mannix to track him down in time to shoot the picture’s climactic monologue.

What ensues is essentially a series of entertaining diversions strung together by context, and a subtext about faith that’s difficult to parse out. But those diversions are glamorous entertainment, and as with almost every film the Coen brothers have ever made, themes come into focus upon reflection and repeat viewings for those inclined to look. For those who are not, the spectacle speaks for itself.

Mannix’s world is an expanse of sunny backlots and crowded soundstages, populated with diva celebrities, film crews, errand boys and gossip columnists either nagging for his attention or requiring it unknowingly. His mission to recover Whitlock takes us from one stage to another, through an assortment of lovingly-recreated genres from the period: an Esther Williams-like synchronized swimming musical, a bloodless white-hat Western, a stuffy parlor drama, a Gene Kelly song-and-dance routine and of course Whitlock’s brontosaurian swords-and-sandals picture.

Most of these start earnest and immersive in front of the curtain, so to speak, and end with a hilariously real peek behind, as extras lose their place and actors lose their tempers. In addition to Brolin and Clooney, the fictionally-named stars themselves are played broad, sometimes with a little wink at their real-life inspirations, by some of modern Hollywood’s best: Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Tilda Swinton, among others. The standout is relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a noble but remarkably dopey cowpoke shoehorned by the studio into a fussy British director’s costume drama.

Celebrities aside, the film’s chief entertainment comes from the Coens’ peerless sense of the absurd, and their ability to put it on the page. “Hail, Caesar!” is a gift to fans who know them for finding witty meta-humor in irony and wordplay – a character name like Laurence Laurentz; the inability of Doyle to pronounce the line “Would that it t’were so simple”; a possible double entendre in a title card that reads “Divine presence to be shot”; a club of Communists who, not knowing any better, call themselves “The Future.”

As for the subtext, the closest frame of reference for “Caesar” may be the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” which finds humanity and humor in Judaism through a modern-day Job parable. “Caesar” does something similar for New Testament mythology, though it’s appropriately lighter and less apocalyptic.

“Caesar” opens on a crucifix, and Mannix – a devout Catholic and loyal company man through and through – is the story’s put-upon Christ figure, a miracle worker who shoulders the sins and troubles of others because it’s his job. He’s even tempted three times, including once off screen, to join an easier line of work by a headhunter from Lockheed Martin. As a parable, the film encompasses the faithful, the converts and the blasphemers, and everybody worships something – a book, a cause, a business or a deity. “Hail,” indeed. But Mannix maintains that faith in the machine is what keeps it running, even, or especially, once you know how it works.

So the film is a teasing valentine to Old Hollywood; a hodgepodge of genres and movie stars both mocked and celebrated; a kidnap caper; a Christ parable; and finally, maybe, a symbolic comedy of empires, religions and all such manmade machines of power seeking and idol worship and storytelling that only just coalesced, in the 20th century, into the Coens’ personal favorite: the movies.