The Coen Brothers Are Back with Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney, leading a cast of thousands.
George Clooney, leading a cast of thousands.

All hail Caesar, and hail the Coen brothers as well, for they have made their best all-out comedy since 1998's The Big Lebowski. While not as in your face with its comedic execution as the Jeff Bridges vehicle, Hail, Caesar! does indeed deliver more genuine, character-driven laughs than such shortcomings as Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. I'm not going to suggest that this particular ensemble comedy be included in the filmmakers' top 10 cinematic achievements, but it is certainly not their worst outing. And like any Woody Allen effort, even a minor Coen brothers movie — with its consistently rich characterization, witty dialogue and well-structured narrative — is better, in quality, than most other films of its ilk.

In essence, Hail, Caesar! is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, an era where westerns, Fred Astaire, Busby Berkeley, George Stevens and Ernst Lubitsch reigned supreme. The star system and culture was firmly established and studio executives like Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) firmly fought to keep the fascinated public's prying eyes from discovering the rotten foundation that held up the thriving film industry's glamorous façade.

The movie's cast exhibits a who's who of present Hollywood royalty. George Clooney plays a superstar who is abducted and held for ransom by a cadre of communist screenwriters. Scarlett Johansson portrays an unwed starlet who is secretly pregnant. Tilda Swinton depicts twin sisters who write for the tabloids. Alden Ehrenreich embodies a cowboy-turned-leading man. Ralph Fiennes is the prestigious director who is incredibly flustered with Ehrenreich's inability to deliver one intelligible line of dialogue. And Brolin is the aforementioned studio executive who is the glue that binds these disparate characters together, making sure their Hollywood house of cards doesn't blow away during his tenure.

With all of the actors and actresses involved in Hail, Caesar!, there is a total of 10 acting Oscar nominations and three acting Oscar wins between them. And yet, it is relative newcomer Ehrenreich who steals the limelight from the more established thespians. The boyish actor is a wide-eyed western star who is given the opportunity to move up the ladder as a leading man in a prestige film, definitely delivering the most laughs in this flick. In particular, it is an exchange between Ehrenreich and Fiennes, who is attempting to give the incompetent cowboy acting direction, which had the whole theater in an uproarious daze. Although I had previously seen Ehrenreich in Blue Jasmine and Stoker, my memory of this talented young actor had disintegrated; I now fondly look forward to what he has in store for cinematic audiences in the near and distant future.

This film will find many detractors, but I think the bold statement needs to be made: The Coen brothers' days of wacky, broad, plot-driven comedies, such as Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski, are far behind the filmmaking duo. In the past 10 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have evolved in their cinematic efforts, choosing to favor rich studies of characterization over zany, absurdist plots. Having matured in both age and thematic sensibility, these writer/directors now prefer to utilize comedy through characterization rather than comedy through plot points, making their most recent batch of films seem somewhat understated and diminutive when compared to their earliest efforts. In this new light, perhaps the reader may find deserved merit in the siblings' most recent attempt at a purely comedic story.

Hail, Caesar! is currently playing nationwide.

Hail, Caesar! (PG-13) 106 min

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, feat. Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum
3.5 Stars

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