"Would that it were so simple."
★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★
Even though the Coen Brothers' long-awaited Hail, Caesar! makes a beautiful mess it can't quite clean up in the end, I have to praise it as one of the best full-on comedies of their career. The reason is simple: it is funny. And it's not hugely funny, there are no big gut-busters (well, maybe one, which involves Channing Tatum, a small dog, and a submarine). But it is consistent in its funniness. That is its crowning achievement.
Josh Brolin stars as Capitol Pictures' "Head of Physical Productions" Eddie Mannix. He confesses too much (a devout Catholic), smokes too little (his wife wants him to quit). A fixer of sorts, he has the hose on many fires. The most recent is the disappearance of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from the set of the studio's big "prestige picture," a "story of The Christ" called Hail, Caesar! Then, there's the starlet of the water musicals, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who doesn't know, or care, who the father is.
Meanwhile, the studio transitions resident acrobatic B-western cowboy, Hobey Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), from the desert to the sound stage, where he gets a taste of romantic comedy under the tutelage of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Then, there's the ransom note for Whitlock from "The Future," a crew of soon-to-be, if not already, blacklisted screenwriters. And Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), the Gene Kelly-esque, tap-dancing king of the homoerotic sailor musical. A huge commercial airline wants Mannix to give it all up for a cushy job in their main office. It's one day somewhere in the 1950s.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Hail, Caesar! is how much a return to comedic form it is for the Coens. They haven't made a full-on screwball comedy in years, and it was not good (The Ladykillers). In 2008, they brought out the great, but super dark comedy, Burn After Reading. It doesn't really compare. Here they've spun a twisty, hilarious yarn built on unexpected developments, clever dialogue, huge stars in small roles. It takes a positive outlook on just about every aspect of Hollywood in this era. I thought, at one point, it might be making fun of all the silly studio fare of the time. Not at all. This film fully respects and admires this era of Hollywood. And how it gets around to all the different genre films and their stars, as we wander around the backlot with Mannix, stage to stage, is nothing short of pure fun. It's a world of which I wish I knew more.
The Coen Brothers have a well-documented knack for finding exactly the right actor to match the witty idiocy of their scripts. George Clooney is perhaps better at playing Coen comedy than any other actor (not sure where John Goodman was in this one). Clooney has a way of shaping his facial expressions that is just astounding. The Roman soldier costume stuck to him leads to some fine physical comedy, as you can imagine, as he sits enthralled and stupified at the Communist idealism of the head screenwriter (Max Baker) and his crew (including Fisher Stevens and David Krumholtz, to name a couple).
The real find here is Alden Ehrenreich as the cowboy Hobey Doyle. Consider the bit where he first enters the set of Fiennes' Laurence Laurentz, the fun he and the Coens have with that name, and his inability to mutter even a single line how Laurentz wants it. Or what about the one where he waits outside his limo, spinning a lasso, as he waits for his date. Then, how he does it in miniature at the dinner table. Ehrenreich's performance is literally the best thing about this movie. He is the bumbling idiot to end all Coen Brothers bumbling idiots.
But even the smallest parts, from the editing booth's own C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to the jack-of-all-trades notary public Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), are perfectly cast, if only for mere moments of screen time. Everyone in this film is having fun in character. We have fun with them. It's a comedy of characters, just as it should be.
This is the best Coen comedy since O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000 and their best film, in general, since A Serious Man. Like O Brother and The Big Lebowski, it is equal parts weird, funny, and imperfect. Imperfect in that he Coen Brothers have so much to throw at the audience, they end up losing their way in the end. That's not to say Hail, Caesar!, or any of these three great comedies, have bad endings. It's just that "it's complicated." All three of these films build and build and build to strange, fascinating, hilarious heights and just have trouble coming down.
Maybe the Coens will never match the comedic perfection and simplicity of Raising Arizona. I'm okay with that. At least they're still making us laugh.