Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hail Caesar! A movie review by William Falcetano

Hail Caesar!  A movie review by William Falcetano

As a big fan of the Coen brothers I was looking forward to seeing their latest film – Hail Caesar!  a parody of the old Hollywood studio system and the kind of movies they mass produced back in the day.  Though the film takes place in the 1950s the movies they are making at Capitol Studios seem to be from the 1930s; but that’s not the worst thing that can be said about this unfunny comedy, which brings together the old team the Coens used with such great success in Burn After Reading – George Clooney, who plays Baird Whitlock, the hapless, empty-headed star of a sword-and-sandal epic, Tilda Swinton, who plays two roles, twin sisters who are both Hedda Hopper-type gossip columnists, and Francis MacDormand, who has a bit part as a film editor who is almost swallowed up by her machine in a scarf fiasco – a sly allusion to Isadora Duncan.  They add to this team the considerable talents of Josh Brolin in the lead role of Eddie Mannix, a front-office studio fixer who is at the center of the whole 3 Ring Circus, Ralph Fiennes, the director Laurence Laurentz (you can imagine how much fun they have with that name), Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-type bathing beauty, with bit parts by Jonah Hill and Dolph Lundgren.  With a roster of talent like that you should be able to hit a double if not a home run; but the Coen brothers strike out with this big-production loser.  The worst thing you can say about this film is that it’s simply not funny.  And there is nothing worse than a comedy that not only doesn’t make you laugh, but makes you wince and squirm in your plush reclining seat.  Of course humor is relative; I was accompanied by a friend who grew up in the Soviet Union, and who found the whole movie incredibly funny.  She attributed it to growing up in a country in which everything was fake – the Potemkin Village effect, one might say.  That was actually the Coens’ point – that American popular culture was (and still is?) mass produced by a studio system that was little more than a vast network of factories and offices, exploited writers, and was only too happy to throw good taste and fine art under the bus so long as the yahoos and goobers kept buying tickets.  “People don’t want the truth – they wanna believe!” Brolin says to Tilda Swinton in perhaps the best line of this ambitious, silly flop. 

For an example of just how unfunny this film gets, imagine a meeting of the movie mogul and 4 clerics – a rabbi, a priest, a minister, and a patriarch.  Sounds like the raw material for a joke but they are there to discuss the theology of the new film which stars Baird Whitlock – a cross between Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas – as a Roman soldier who has a life-altering encounter with Jesus, “the Nazarene”, the Rabbi keeps saying.  Eddie Mannix just wants a pass from these censors – he doesn’t want the film to offend anybody.  The ball gets kicked around the table about the nature of the godhead, the unity-in-division of the trinity, and the prohibition against representing god directly (“but we don’t think he’s God; so it’s OK”).  The meeting is a kind of a “who’s on first” parody but it’s anything but funny. Could it be the Coen brothers didn’t get the memo that theological discussions don’t make promising material for screw-ball comedy?  They definitely didn’t get the other memo that arcane disputes among communists of the 1950s also don’t tickle the funny bone.  Warning: whenever the word “dialectic” is used in a joke it is sure to flop, even if delivered by a guy doing a reasonably good send-up of Herbert Marcuse crossed with Sigmund Freud. 

            For a satire to be effective its target must be vulnerable and deserve the drubbing.  But each big-budget set-piece takes aim at a whole genre of movie-making – the cowboy western with the rodeo star miscast in a dinner-jacket society drama (Alden Ehrenreich), the Busby Berkeley aquatic fantasy of perfectly synchronized swimmers, the tap-dancin’, singin’ sailors with framing shots straight from On the Town, and finally the corny religious epics of yesteryear that look so campy today.  What was entertainment then, what was considered believable drama in an earlier age, is depicted today as laughable and silly, overacted or pretentious.  It’s interesting to see how the history of film reveals the way in which the art of acting and the methods of drama have changed over the decades.  Who could look at the silent pictures with their wide eyes and exaggerated gestures as anything but laughable today?  Marlon Brando complained that the actors who came before him were tediously predictable – you always knew what you got when you saw Clark Gable or Mae West.  He is widely credited with introducing a different style of acting, one that was more life-like and surprising.  Generally, we think that things have gotten better, that our arts and dramas are superior to those of yesteryear.  Yet this way of thinking misses the obvious point that things are bound to appear that way since we are the consumers of today’s products, and so naturally we prefer them to yesterday’s stale bread.  Yesterday’s confections were created for yesterday’s consumers, who had different sensibilities than our own.  When today’s snark meets yesterday’s camp the results should be funny; but sadly they are not in this latest of the Coen brothers’ efforts.  I guess you can’t hit every pitch out of the park. 

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