“Hail Caesar”: Roman Holiday!

Light hearted, wink and nod, middling Coen Brothers Hollywood hijinks are still worth the watch! Clearly this is no country for serious men. . . fargo from the blood simple true grit of lady killers.

“Hail Caesar” has the elements of a fine film. The plot percolates through a day in the life of a 1950s motion picture studio. Lush period sets are populated by some of Hollywood’s finest actors, albeit in all too fleeting cameos. Hey wasn’t that Co-director Ethan Coen’s wife Florence McDormand getting strangled in the editing room? There’s twice Tilda Swinton playing twin trouble making newspaper columnists sniffing out scandals on the set. And wasn’t that swimming Scarlett Johansson doing her best Esther Williams to hook up with studio functionary Jonah Hill.

Only George Clooney clowning, Josh Brolin brooding and Channing Tatum tapping are allowed to chew up the scenery for extended grazing periods. Tatum’s fine song and dance routine and Coen newcomer Alden Ehrenreich’s aw shucks Will Rodger’s turn are revelations.

The directors deftly weave the plot strands enacted on different sets. Manic Eddie Mannix (Coen Brothers stalwart Brolin) runs Capital Pictures studio. His specialty in shepherding pictures through production is damage control. He has to squelch the muckraking reporter twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Swinton), make peace between exacting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) and legitimize DeeAnna Moran’s (Johansson) out of wedlock pregnancy.

Mannix biggest challenge is to rescue leading man Baird Whitlock (Clooney) from a group of mysterious kidnappers. All of this while trying to decide whether to remain as ringmaster of the studio or take a less frenetic, more lucrative management position with Lockheed Aviation.

Like the dinner party guest discussing religion and politics, the Coens have their usual mix of success and failure. In two scenes that would make God wince and Voltaire smile, Brolin presides over a disputatious Babel of religious leaders convened to convey their blessings on the studio’s forthcoming sand and sandals epic and then later, Clooney at the crucifixion manages brilliantly to show both the strength and stretch marks of religion.

The Coens have less success dealing with the politics of Clooney’s captors. Sympathetic to the kidnappers’ principles, the Coen’s venture out onto the thin ice of ideas. But like many of the actors of that time, they retreat to the safety of simplistic stereotypes which dates them and misses the comedic target.

In the end, the broadness of “Hail Caesar” is inviting and entertaining . . . but this window into the old studio system makes one wonder how much the process has really changed over time.

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