HAIL, CAESAR! People usually cite Woody Allen as the workhorse of American cinema, churning out movies almost every year, resulting in an array of sublime successes (Annie Hall in 1977 to Midnight in Paris in 2011) next to titles too depressing to list. Allen, on the grind for six decades, is the model for relentless productivity in the face of often-diminished returns. Starting in the 1980s, though, and running nearly neck and neck with Allen, are Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coens have created more than a few irreplaceable, darkly hilarious high points in American cinema. In the 1990s, especially, they built a temporally fluid nightmare funhouse out of black humor, misanthropy, genre and existential doubt: Miller's Crossing (1990); Barton Fink (1991); The Hudsucker Proxy (1994); Fargo (1996); and The Big Lebowski (1998). They were so good, so intensely focused, it seemed they could do no wrong. Even Hudsucker, at the time almost universally reviled, holds up relatively well. And one could argue that Fargo would not exist were it not for the commercial disappointment of its predecessor, so perhaps we should all be thankful. At the same time, though, the unexpected failure of Hudsucker and even more unexpected success of Fargo may be responsible for the more frequently unfocused work that cropped up in the next phase of the Coens' career.
The 2000s started auspiciously enough, with the giddily silly Preston Sturges paraphrase O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) into the smoky noir of The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), a masterful genre riff that deserves more praise. At this point, though, things start to slide, as the Coens began alternating between movies clearly meant for wider audiences and riskier, perhaps more personal ones. Some of their greatest successes ensued (No Country for Old Men in 2007 and A Serious Man in 2009), but they are coupled with some of the more disappointing, diluted works of their career. Movies like The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008) and Hail, Caesar! — none of which (maybe with the exception of The Ladykillers) are bad movies, per se. They just aren't quite Coen Brothers movies the way I'd like them to be.
In its defense, Hail, Caesar! benefits from the Coens' decades of experience, both in team-building and shooting movies. Ellen Chenoweth assembles a beyond-formidable cast, Roger Deakins' work behind the camera is astounding as usual, Carter Burwell's music works beautifully, the production design of Jess Gonchor and costumes of Mary Zophres create a broad, breathtaking, richly detailed canvas across which the action takes place. The problem is in that action.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production for Capitol Pictures sometime in the early 1950s, is very busy. He's a devout Catholic, a family man trying to quit smoking, and responsible for controlling the wild and woolly goings on of a booming Hollywood studio. He's entertaining a job offer from Lockheed, with the specter of global annihilation looming behind it. One of his stars, audience darling DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), rougher hewn than an outsider might suspect, is newly pregnant with no husband in sight. The New York money wants to put the studio's singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in the starring role of a drama helmed by prestige director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if Mannix doesn't have enough to do, the star of the studio's biggest production, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, one carousing Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has gone missing.
There are touches, mostly around the edges, of satire here, some mild commentary on the false impression later generations have of the "mildness" of the 1950s. Homosexuality is hinted at, Communism crops up, there are brief moments questioning the assumption of traditional gender roles. By and large, though, this is broad comedy defined by its set pieces. Channing Tatum does a cheeky, gay-sailor song and dance routine, Ehrenreich steals the show with his oater highlights and sidling bravado, and Johansson's aquatic musical number is both charming and lavish. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough at the center of this thing to hold all of the elements together. Brolin's resourceful, long-suffering Mannix is compelling and grounded, but we learn too little about his life to really pull for him. And Clooney rarely takes a role with so little substance. He's charming and funny, but little else.
While Hail, Caesar! is a disappointment on the Coen scale (it never gets as dark or as funny as it teases at), it does pull back the curtain, if only a little, on a fascinating period in American history, and on a distinctly American industry. There are memorable scenes, performances and images within it, but insufficient focus to make the elements cohere. PG13. 106m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Richards's Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
DEADPOOL. Ryan Reynolds zips into full Lycra for the origin story of Marvel's wisecracking anti-hero. R. 107m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HOW TO BE SINGLE. New York rom-com with Dakota Johnson as a dating newbie and Rebel Wilson as her bawdy Yoda. R. 110m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
ZOOLANDER 2. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as clueless, pouty models saving the world from Will Ferrell's Mugatu. With Kristen Wiig and Penélope Cruz. PG13. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
BOY & THE WORLD. Oscar-nominated, animated tale of a boy in search of his father. PG. 120m. RICHARDS' GOAT.
THE CHOICE. Nicholas Sparks fires up the romance generator for another one, this time with a young couple at the seaside. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
DIRTY GRANDPA. If watching movie legend Robert DeNiro sling homophobic slurs at recovering Mousketeer Zac Efron in an unfunny buddy movie sounds like good times, fine. Do what you want. R. 102m. BROADWAY.
THE FINEST HOURS. Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger and Casey Affleck in a true-story drama about Coasties attempting to rescue oil tankers in a New England winter storm in 1952. Bring a hot beverage. PG13. 117m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
KUNG FU PANDA 3. Jack Black returns to voice the buoyant Dragon Master, who reunites with his bio dad and trains fellow pandas to fight a supernatural villain. An enjoyable take on the hero's journey with some genuinely pretty animation. PG. 95m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife who can mow down hordes of the undead. PG13. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE REVENANT. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a frontier survivor Hell-bent on revenge in a gorgeous, punishing Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu film that offers little beyond beauty and suffering. R. 156m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. The writing and visuals are a bit too faithful to the original, but they work in this nostalgic return. Leads John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are as compelling as more familiar faces. PG13. 135m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THEEB. A Bedouin boy follows his brother on a desert crossing with a British soldier during World War I in this Oscar-nominated Arabic language film. NR. 100m. RICHARDS' GOAT.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill