(This film review of “Hail Caesar” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 3 March 2016.)
Directed and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum
Most film directors love the movies, and the Jewish film-making duo of Joel and Ethan Coen is no exception. While only one previous film, “Barton Fink”, was set in “movieland”, their latest comedy, “Hail Caesar”, is takes place totally in and around an early 1950s mythical film studio called “Capitol Pictures”.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) runs production at Capitol, with responsibilities ranging from saving young starlets from exploitation by sleazy photographers to fixing up stars’ pregnancies to supervising edits to daily 8.00am telephone calls with the New York boss. He also runs external relations, convening a meeting of four religious leaders (including a rabbi) to review the script of the studio’s big Roman religious “swords and sandals” epic, “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ” (the major “film within a film” of “Hail Caesar”), which in turn is a combination of (the real films) “The Robe”, “Quo Vadis” and “Ben Hur”.
The plot of “Hail Caesar” revolves around the kidnapping for ransom of the star of “Hail Caesar”, Baird Whitlock, a Kirk Douglas/Charlton Heston type (played by George Clooney), by a group of Communist (and mostly Jewish) screenwriters. They meet in a “study group” with the Marxist Jewish philosopher Herbert Marcuse (played by Australian-British actor John Bluthal).
In an odd way, the themes of “Hail Caesar” reflect two films currently playing in Australian cinemas: “Risen”, about a Roman tribune in the time of Jesus who decides to become his follower; and “Trumbo”, about blacklisted writers in the 1950s who were Communist sympathisers.
It feels rude to criticise “Hail Caesar”, given that it has been made with such love, adoration and affection for movies and movie history, and does such a delightful job of re-creating Hollywood circa 1951. The Coen brothers show off their film-making skill by creating scenes from a classic western, a group of tap dancing sailors (think “Follow the Fleet”), synchronised swimming (think “Million Dollar Mermaid”) and a British drawing room drama. As wonderful as each of these scenes are, they don’t add up: the whole of this film is less than the sum of its very good parts. The major plotline – the kidnapping – is weak and underdeveloped, and there is little character interaction, tension or emotional growth.
A number of star actors have small – virtually cameo – roles in “Hail Caesar”, including Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams type, Ralph Fiennes as an expatriate European director, Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) as a chain-smoking film editor, Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing actor, Tilda Swinton in two roles as competing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper style), and Jonah Hill as a Jewish lawyer the studio goes to when they need a paid “fall guy”.
The real find – and by far the best performance in “Hail Caesar” – is Jewish actor Alden Ehrenreich, who convincingly plays singing cowboy star “Hobie Doyle”, a cowboy star who has great difficulty in making the transition from the prairies to talky dramas. At age 26, Ehrenreich previously played Cate Blanchett’s anguished stepson in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. In movie-like fashion, he was first “discovered” by Steven Spielberg, while performing a comedy sketch at a friend’s bar mitzvah in Los Angeles. In “Hail Caesar”, Ehrenreich’s Doyle performs great feats of physical comedy, leaping on and off horses, using a cowboy lasso and then even turning a strand of spaghetti into a miniature lasso. Along with Brolin’s Mannix, he is one of only two characters who have any dimensionality in the whole film. He’s an actor with great potential.
In the Coen brothers’ tradition, the majority of minor characters and actors are Jewish, including recognisable Coen favourites David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed and Alex Karpovsky.
(photo below: Alden Ehrenreich in “Hail Caesar”, playing one of his cowboy roles)