Review: Hail HAIL CAESAR!

Why is it coming out in February?

That was the thought swimming around in the back of my mind as I saw all the amazing trailers and promo spots for Hail Caesar!, the latest directorial project from the Coen Brothers. It looked good, had an amazing cast, Coens writing and directing, Roger Deakins behind the camera, why was this film getting buried after Oscar nominations come out?

The answer quickly became apparent as I watched: it’s too fun for the awards circuit. Hail Caesar! is a straight-up slapstick comedy, designed more for the purposes of joy and laughter than any kind of deeper philosophical or thematic conquest. A lot of jokes involve people falling down or getting slapped in the face. It’s not quite as outlandish or broad as The Ladykillers (there’s no equivalent to the “you brought your bitch to the muthafuckin’ Waffle Hut!” moment), which is good, but it’s fun and silly while still retaining that unique Coen artfulness.

As is any project shot by Roger Deakins nowadays (most recently his Oscar-nominated work on Sicario comes to mind), Hail Caesar looks gorgeous. The film is presented in a tall 1:85:1 aspect ratio (think 16×9 TV as opposed to traditional matted widescreen) and has a warm celluloid glow to it. Several sequences take place on film sets and feature “in-camera” shots presented in full-frame Academy ratio for authenticity. Scarlett Johansson’s elaborately-staged entrance is particularly striking in the unusual ratio. There are several repeated visual motifs (clock and watch faces, a particular camera angle used in the tracking shots where Josh Brolin interacts with his dutiful secretary) that hint at the cruel drudgery of the period’s constant chaos (Hail Caesar! takes place in roughly one day of film time).  Hail Caesar marks Roger Deakins’s return to shooting on film (though don’t get used to it), and the decision makes perfect sense for the post-war era in which the movie takes place.

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Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar! (Universal)

Performances are stellar across the board, but what else could be expected from Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Alison Pill and Tilda Swinton (playing twins!) being directed by the Coens? It’s clear everyone is having a great time and the material is whip-smart. Channing Tatum, with little dialogue and only a few minutes of screen time, threatens to run away with the entire movie. His tap-dance extravaganza, hinted at in the trailers, is the scene to beat this year.

The story revolves frantically around a Hollywood studio fix-it man (Brolin) who goes about his day solving casting problems in various pictures, hiding his testy stars’ indiscretions from the public and attempting to free a ransomed actor (Clooney) who needs to be on set to avoid production delays. Characters and their problems flit in and out, contributing to a patchwork, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not.

The film has an interesting sense of comedic timing, and several moments stand out that I wouldn’t dare spoil. Suffice to say, sometimes the jokes come rapid-fire but a few are very slow burns. There are a ton of visual gags and there’s no lack of pratfalls and physical comedy. For a Coen joint it’s remarkably tame, and only even got a PG-13 rating for smoking (not going there today) and a few mildly dirty jokes. You can take your mom.

It’s not going to be the best film of the year or anything, but Hail Caesar! has a lot going on and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it looks like a zany comedy. It’s still a Coen Brothers film and has the requisite brains to go along with its charm and good looks. Go see it with a crowd.

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