I had been looking forward to the new Joel & Ethan Coen movie, “Hail, Caesar!” which is based on the novel plot point that the lead actor in a huge studio spectacle is kidnapped and held for ransom just as the film is in the midst of shooting. The time frame for the film is the early 1950s, which means that musicals and religious spectacles (think “The Robe,” “Spartacus,” etc.) were big. Anyone old enough to know who Esther Williams was will like this movie.
I was lucky to see the film at a theater that showed clips from some of these old movies prior to the feature film. There were clips from an old Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly film, complete with dancing and singing. There were several choreographed swimming movies with Esther Williams (and others) looking every bit as good in her spangly swimsuit as any of today’s starlets. All of these snippets of films of yesteryear helped establish the tone and mood for the feature film.
And the feature film was a doozy! Outstanding amongst a terrific cast, for me, were the new face playing cowboy actor Hobie Doyle, Alden Ehrenheich. Alden is shown as a terrific horseman who can ride and rope with the best of them and can also sing. Because westerns were big in that era, Hobie has a career in westerns, but is suddenly traded by his studio to play the lead in a romantic drawing room comedy drama entitled “Merrily We Dance,” being directed by the oh-so-cultivated (and probably gay) director Laurence Laurentz, played by Ralph Fiennes. Since Hobie can barely speak, the scene where Fiennes tries to coach Hobie on how to deliver his lines is a comic delight. It goes without saying that Hobie cannot understand half of the terms Director Laurentz uses (words like “importune”). As we know from the clip that portrays Hobie’s dilemma, if asked to rope a cow, he would be in his element. If asked to dress up in a tuxedo and talk in a refined manner: not so much. The best Hobie can say, in trying to please his director, is, “I’ll give it a shot.” (His task: speak the line, “Would that it were so simple.”)
Josh Brolin plays the hard-working head of the studio who must put out fires on and off the lot. Ed Mannix must deal with the kidnapping of the lead in his Biblical epic, an actor called Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The group that has kidnapped Baird (Clooney) calls itself “the Future.” It is a group of egghead Communists, and the leader of the group is a reveal when it comes.
The cast is uniformly great and the send-ups of what the old studio culture was all about is genius. Tilda Swinton plays two gossip columnists, an homage to the dueling gossip columnists Dear Abby and Anne Landers, probably. There is a veiled reference to the old story of Loretta Young’s love child (supposedly by Clark Gable) being adopted by its own biological mother. The rumors of gay stars and directors having to conceal their homosexuality are legendary.
On the evening talk shows, co-star Channing Tatum shares the difficulties he faced in his part, since he had to learn to tap dance. The tap dance sequence is great. The swimming sequences that mimic the Esther Wiliams movies of old are wonderful, especially when Scarlett Johanssen speaks.
Noah Hill doesn’t have enough to do (nor does Frances McDormand) but lines like this kept me wanting more: “God doesn’t have children. He is a bachelor—and very angry.” The send-up of the old westerns with singing cowboys (“Lazy Ol’ Moon”) was equally good.
I really needed a light-hearted comedy that realizes there are a few adults left in the world who go to the movies. I’ve been seeing what looks like a re-boot of “Animal House” updated to the seventies. No offense to its Austin-based director Richard Linklater, based here in Austin, who helmed the classic “Dazed and Confused,” but I’d rather stroll down memory lane with the Coen Brothers. This movie was thoroughly entertaining, from start to finish.