Hail, Caesar!

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Hail, Caesar!
"The Coens' obvious fun in concocting scenes of mid-century paranoia is infectious."

Romans and slaves walk through arches in a western landscape that couldn't be further from Rome. The cracks on the pavement of L.A., the palm trees lining the streets, salt and pepper shakers the color of milky absinthe, a dream house by the sea - Is all of it just a Lazy Ol' Moon in the water (China: Through The Looking Glass)? Would that it were so simple to change passion to ardour!

Hail, Caesar!, the opening night film of the Glasgow Film Festival, is all about making glorious pictures and the Hollywood of the early 1950s is lovingly resurrected here, Coen style, with Michael Gambon as our narrator, his voice-over simultaneously soothing and absurd. The production design by Jess Gonchor and the costumes by Mary Zophres are rich in detail and panache and never fall into the trap of nostalgic clutter. Swimsuits for the synchronised chorus girls are the perfect shade of lipstick red and canary yellow to go with the brilliant sapphire green of Scarlett Johansson's "fish ass", as her sassy character DeeAnna Moran calls her sparkly tail.

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Lips Stay Silent, the waltz from Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, accompanying the splendidly choreographed and impeccably shot water ballet in the style of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley's aquatic pictures, could also be the motto of Ethan and Joel Coen's protagonist, studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), fixer at Capitol Pictures. His job is to keep stars' scandals from the cinema-loving public and Miss Moran is one of the problems Mannix has to solve.

Although he is named after the notorious real-life right hand man for Louis B. Mayer at MGM, the Coen's Mannix is an invention of their own, a devout Catholic so enamored with going to confession daily that even the priest suggests he might be overdoing it. It makes perfect sense that someone whose job it is to hide the truth goes to the other extreme when he can.

Mannix likes to check his very attractive watch and overall we are kept up to date about the time of day as though we were witnessing a countdown to some spectacular event that never happens. His secretary Natalie (a very good Heather Goldenhersh) checks every urgent problem on her list in wonderfully calmly paced walks through the studio sets and offices. When he has a belated meeting consulting with four religious leaders on how to portray Jesus in the most encompassing, inoffensive way for the studio's Hail, Caesar! movie (subtitled A Tale Of The Christ), the chariot scenes in the script seem, to one of them, a bit unrealistic.

George Clooney plays the studio's greatest star, Baird Whitlock, with an air of refreshing innocence in matters of the brain. While working on the surefire blockbuster Roman saga, where he is to encounter Christ on the cross and change his faith, he drinks out of the chalice from the palace, one that had been tampered with by two scheming extras.

He is abducted by a communist screenwriter gang, The Future, all dressed in earthy tones, rusty brown sweaters and morel tweeds, a fluffy little dog named Engels keeping them company. In a modernist beach house in Malibu, they hold meetings and discuss history and economy over cucumber sandwiches (sans crust) with some flashes from an openly skulking photographer (Alex Karpovsky) and a certain Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal). The Coens' obvious fun in concocting these scenes of mid-century paranoia is infectious. When the question comes to money or saving a life, no matter how small, in Hail, Caesar!, they go for the latter and take care of the former some other way.

Clooney wears the same Roman leather breastplate and sandals throughout the entire film - only the toga is longer than the very short shifts of the era.

Twin newspaper columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton sporting the eye makeup of the original Barbie doll and the hats of Hedda Hopper, are eager to jump on juicy stories, old and new, for their readers. Gossip, fact and invention are jumbled together into a brand new feast for the eyes (thanks to Roger Deakins' cinematography) and ears (music by Carter Burwell). Like a set of Russian dolls, the individual numbers resemble the patterns of the entire movie.

In the No Dames dance routine, headed by Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, the Coens quote elements from at least four Gene Kelly vehicles - the sailors from On The Town and Anchors Aweigh, his famous mop dance from Thousands Cheer and the bar setting from It's Always Fair Weather, plus a wink and a nod to Fred Astaire's use of props. The peanut shells scratch like the sand in Top Hat, the ladder slides like the one in Funny Face. The resulting choreography would not have passed the censors in 1952.

Former stuntman, turned singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle (a spectacular Alden Ehrenreich) has a thing for handstands on horses and for lassos. He even makes them out of pasta - without meat sauce. When he is miscast in the drawing room piece Merrily We Dance, directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), opposite a Deborah Kerr lookalike in a set straight from the pages of Vogue, Hobie tries his damnedest to deliver the dialogue how Laurentz wants him to, "mirthless chuckle" included. A very funny Moses supposes elocution duel makes us like the cowboy even more.

There are brief visitations of the ghosts of Hollywood past and well-placed cameos by stars of the present. Veronica Osorio's Carmen-Miranda-like character shares the name Carlotta Valdez with the woman on the portrait in Vertigo, director Norman Taurog gets a mention, and Jonah Hill plays a "professional person" with a link to the real-life rumors around Loretta Young.

Frances McDormand, as film editor CC Calhoun, escapes the fate of Isadora Duncan by a hair and doesn't miss a drag off her cigarette, and Christopher Lambert is director Arne Seslum with secret wife and kid in Malmö. An illicit 5 AM "French postcard" photo shoot Mannix interrupts to protect starlet Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) - "It's not really her dirndl" - makes him seem like Phillip Marlowe.

There is no sarcasm at Das Capitol Pictures with the Coen brothers running the studio.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2016
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Capitol Pictures is about to complete its biggest film of the year, but its star has been kidnapped. Can the studio fixer solve the problem in time?
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Festivals:

Glasgow 2016
BIFF 2016

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