All Hail Breaks out with George Clooney, Channing Tatum and the Coens in ‘Hail, Caesar!”
Thelma Adams, Film Editor, February 5, 2015
There is a nearly interstitial blissful moment in the Coen Brothers’ chaotically joyous “Hail, Caesar!” when the singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) stands outside of a Hollywood mansion for a studio-arranged date. As Hobie waits, he pulls out a rope beside his black limo in the soft evening light and makes a lariat. He starts to do increasingly elaborate rope tricks, making circles in the air, jumping in and out of them, his body loose, his concentration on his craft, never breaking a sweat. I keep returning to that moment: the joy between beats. The stunt lacks the Penn and Teller big tada. It is simply a thing of silly, old-fashioned Hollywood beauty, a wonderful nostalgia that is in no way italicized. There are no more singing cowboys, Gene Autry and his horse Trigger are long dead – and yet here is this beautiful young actor taking out his rope and dancing in and out of the loops he makes. He makes it look easy. It’s not.
This brings to mind another miracle, the shooting of a soundstage scene that could have been a B-side for a Gene Kelly sequence, a flamboyantly flirty dance number among sailors in a basement bar during shore leave. Suddenly Channing Tatum – that gorgeous dancing hunk – in sailor whites and silly cap starts singing and dancing. The routine goes on and on with lyrics laced with double entendre until the end, after all the tap dancing on tables and boys dancing with boys yet another large group of sailors join the tap-dancing fray. Joyous pandemonium erupts.
The Coen’s backstage 50’s-set film, which they wrote and directed, celebrates the glorious American folly of studio moviemaking. They get under the idea of the dream machine. The resulting collective American subconscious, created largely by Jewish moguls seeking to profit in a land where they had the freedom to create, is a fiercely flawed and beautiful thing that can’t be tamed.
Given the Coen’s superior storytelling, a juicy plot drives the miraculous moments: A studio fixer in the Humphrey Bogart vein, Eddie Mannix (a swell Josh Brolin), spends twenty-four hours putting out fires and contemplating a leap to a more stable job at Boeing. The abduction of the studio’s big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from his sword-and-sandal epic sets the ticking clock comedy in motion.
We know that Mannix won’t resign his crazy job. He will rescue Whitlock and get that final monolog in the can along with the movie that gives the comedy its title, “Hail, Caesar!” And yet, in the Coen’s hands, the tension mounts as they dangle an expansive cast of characters from gossip columnists to dictatorial directors played by Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill and Scarlett Johansson. There is also the kind of crazy cast of supporting characters, a Greek chorus of talky Communist screenwriters.
Joyous chaos – the beauty of a dance sequence, a cowboy’s corny song and the shtick that binds it all together – is both the drug what studio fixer Mannix cannot kick and what we as audiences embrace. And it’s what the Coen Brothers harness in this generous-spirited, skillful wet kiss to the industry they continue to master and remake. Oh, and then there’s Clooney, funny, charming and physical. He shamelessly takes the piss out of his own movie star persona as only the great ones can. His keen comic talent is inviting us, the audience, into the joke at his expense. He creates the illusion within the movie theater darkness that we are intimates conspiring to create an alternative universe that sparkles so much more than the world outside. Bliss!