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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hail Caesar!



"Hooray for Old Hollywood!" trumpets Hail Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen's prodigious tribute to the golden age of Tinseltown circa the 1950s. Josh Brolin headlines a massive cast of some of today's biggest Hollywood names. As the head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Pictures, Brolin's all-consuming and thankless task is to oversee his studio's motley assemblage of eccentrics as they mount a prestige picture called "Hail Caesar!" involving the fall of Rome and the rise of Jesus Christ and Christianity. An early scene where Brolin holds court with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a reverend, and an imam, is a high point, as they hilariously debate whether Jesus was God, the son of God, or none of the above. ("God is a bachelor," the rabbi argues, "And he's always angry.") Brolin himself is a deeply penitent man, making daily confessions to the chagrin of his patient priest. Brolin must have the patience of Job to deal with the wackos he deals with every day, as a recruiter for Lockheed Martin surmises when he offers Brolin a cushier, more lucrative position to run security for Lockheed and quit showbiz. But letting go of showbiz is easier said than done.

During production of "Hail Caesar!" its star, played by George Clooney, is mysteriously kidnapped and held for ransom. Clooney, largely oblivious and of the highly suggestible type, becomes a "guest" - a rather surprisingly willing one - of a cadre of screenwriters who turn out to be communists looking to blackmail the studio. Meanwhile, podunk horse opera matinee idol Alden Ehrenreich receives an offer to star in a prestige drama directed by effete auteur Ralph Fiennes and learns actually having to act in a "serious" picture is tougher than it looks. While all that is going on, Scarlett Johansson has a swim on as a starlet whom the studio needs to find a new husband for, to maintain her image. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum stars in his own musical as a sailor who laments going out to sea means seeing no dames for a long, long time -- because women and seamen don't mix, as we all know. Tons of other famous faces, like Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip hounds), Frances McDormand (of course), Alison Pill, Clancy Brown, and even a very aged Christopher Lambert show up in minor roles, some just for a scene, as it seems the Coens speed dialed every contact on their iPhones and got them all day rates.

With a plot barely strung together like a slacking laundry clothesline, Hail Caesar! at times feels more like an elaborate movie star talent showcase: See how long Scarlett Johansson can hold her breath underwater as the Coens mount an underwater musical number that hasn't been done in a Hollywood movie in 50 years! Watch Ehrenreich perform clever trickery with his trusty lasso! Tatum steals the show with an acrobatic soft shoe tap dance routine that shows off just how talented Magic Mike really is. Through it all, Brolin bounces around from crisis to crisis, putting out fires with his hard-talking, square-jawed, tough guy routine, willing his studio back into some kind of normalcy. Hail Caesar! persuasively and enjoyably recreates Hollywood's golden age in all its starry hues. But what does it all mean? What's the point of Hail Caesar!? That there's no business like show business? Yes, guys, we know.