Hail, Caesar!

Rating:

AVE VALEQUE

Main Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

White House West Wing PD

Oh, no – not that West Wing. Ours will be far grander.

Now that Casa Maine has finally been cleared of its ghostly inhabitants (and the impresario DeWolfe tells me that their tap tour of Asia just broke box office records in Kuala Lumpur), the contractors are finally making headway with the new west wing.  The framing for all five stories is up and we should have walls and floors by the end of next week.  I can hardly wait to have space for all of MNM enterprises to be housed in a single location.  This working out of boxes, storage spaces and the occasional spillover onto the yacht or the motor coach is becoming awfully old. I can never find the correct file or the right shoes or the brilliant costume sketches I sometimes create on a sleepless night before I send them off to the brilliant Bob Mackie for total realization.

The supernatural interlude has interrupted my ability to make myself available for all of the fine performing opportunities that exist for a superstar of my type and level of public recognition so I scheduled a morning to go through all the scripts and prospectuses that had come in over the last few weeks.  The pile was somewhat smaller than I had expected.  (I blame the post office, I’m sure they’re still delivering half the mail to my old Chateau Maine address as if a talented and vital star such as myself would be living in that ruin of a house).  Most of the offerings went into the immediate reject pile.  I refuse to play Kimmie Schmidt’s grandmother at my ever youthful and permanent age of 39.  I might consider a hip young aunt.  The musical adaptation of Airport ’77 also went in the reject pile as I refuse to tap underwater.  Esther Williams might have been game but the old dear’s gone now like so many of the Hollywood Kids with whom I shared so many fond experiences.

Daydreaming of the films of yesteryear reminded me that I had not yet watched the new Coen Brother’s movie, Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year.  I asked Normy if he wanted to join me but he was busy in his composition studio working on a concerto for chainsaw and harpsichord so I toddled off to the home theater alone to see what the quirky brothers had come up with.  I knew that the setting was classic Hollywood of the early 50s, a time I remember well (amazing at my age!) as I was a naïve young slip of a girl, first making my mark in tinsel town, in that tumultuous era.   I poured myself a generous portion of Tanqueray, added some angostura bitters for flavor and dimmed the lights, settling back for a trip down memory lane.

Hail, Caesar! is the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), based loosely on MGM producer E J. Mannix who was well known as a Hollywood fixer.  If a star had a scandal or misdeed that could damage their bankability or a studio’s profits, Mannix was the guy who could make it all go away through a variety of monetary and quasi-legal means.  Here, he works for the fictitious Capitol Pictures.  Their big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is starring in a biblical epic entitled Hail, Caesar! which seems to be a cross between Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis but with more ridiculous set design and matte paintings.  One day, he is kidnapped from the set by a shadowy organization called ‘The Future’ and taken to a Malibu beach house straight out of a Hitchcock movie.  The Future turns out to be a collection of Marxist intellectuals who believe that communism is the answer to society’s ills and they begin persuading Whitlock to join their cause.  In the meantime, Mannix is also dealing with swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who has the career of Esther Williams, the relationships of Lana Turner and the personal history of Loretta Young; she is with child by her director (Christopher Lambert) and this does not sit well with her unmarried state.  There’s also singing cowboy Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) who has been woefully miscast in a sophisticated drawing room comedy directed by the effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who is a cross between Vincente Minelli and George Cukor, a Gene Kellyesque song and dance man (Channing Tatum) who has a big secret, and a pair of identical twin rival gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) who both know something’s up.  Familiar faces in smaller parts include Wayne Knight, David Krumholz, Robert Picardo, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill.

Like all of the Coen Brothers oeuvre, the film is, for the most part, impeccably cast, acted and written.  All of the disparate plot threads end up coming together in various ways leading to some rather surreal moments such as a bunch of intellectual writers rowing a boat out into the Pacific so that a major movie star can defect to Russia on board a submarine.  There are also lots of little in jokes such as Hobie having a true spaghetti western moment while on a dinner date with a Carmen Miranda manqué (Veronica Osorio) named Carlotta Valdez (think Vertigo), and a cleaning lady using a Hoover (as in J Edgar) to clean up after the cell meeting.  The high points are the recreations of period genre films.  Each of them is terrible in an affectionate way reminding us all that the Golden Age of Hollywood produced a lot of dreck as well as the classics we watch over and over again.  Most of those titles have vanished to 99 cent DVDs or the middle of the night hours on Turner Classic Movies and it’s fun to see them parodied.  My favorites were the Esther Williams type water ballet and Channing Tatum’s song and dance number as an escapee from On The Town in a surprisingly homoerotic tap extravaganza in a waterfront bar.  The boy can actually sing and dance and, had he been born a few generations earlier, could very well have had Gene Kelly’s career.

To me, the weak link of the film was George Clooney, usually an effortless actor relying on charisma, he has a huge disadvantage to overcome.  Due to the exigencies of plot and the quirkiness of the film makers, he spends the entire film in a Roman Centurion costume which makes it a little disconcerting when he has to play scenes with a bunch of Marxist intellectuals.  I think the Coen’s are going for theater of the absurd, but I’m not sure even Monty Python could have completely pulled it off. He gives it a valiant try, has some good moments, but I don’t know that any actor could have completely pulled off the role as written.  This leaves Josh Brolin thoroughly in command of the film as tough as nails Mannix.  He’s been turning in greatish performances for decades and this is another notch in his belt.  Other stellar moments come from Tilda Swinton (hysterical as both sisters in Mary Zophres’ great period costumes) and a wickedly funny cameo by Frances McDormand as a somewhat crazed film editor who has an unfortunate encounter with her moviola.

It’s a film for anyone who enjoys film.  It gives an affectionately satirical look at the lost studio system, reminds us of the army of off camera professionals necessary to create a movie scene, and is intelligent enough to give you something to talk about while you’re having drinks afterwards.   It may not have the sustained brilliance of Fargo, but it’s still worth seeing.

Brazier scene.  Drugged goblet.  Pet dog.  McGuffin briefcase.  Turbans.  Gay sailor boys. Lockheed job offer. Gratuitous Fisher Stevens.  Ill-fitting fish tail.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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