Under the Silver Lake (2019)

The very first line of spoken dialogue in Under the Silver Lake is a verbal reference to Turner Classic Movies. Every character’s shithole Los Angeles apartment in the film is lined with Old Hollywood movie posters. The score (from the director’s return collaborator Disasterpeice) is an oppressive Studio Era composition that swells & overwhelms the soundtrack in playful nostalgia. A pivotal scene in the protagonist’s amateur investigation of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is staged at the foot of Hitchcock’s grave. This is a movie that very much wants to be understood as a prankish, tongue-in-cheek throwback to noir thrillers of ancient Old Hollywood past. The problem is that all that influence signaling is a flagrant misdirect. Under the Silver Lake plays much more like an echo of 1980s Brian De Palma oddities like Body Double & Blow Out than it does any Hitchcockian thriller it pretends to riff on. Since De Palma himself was already prankishly subverting Old Hollywood tropes, this continuation of that tradition is essentially a copy of a copy, twice removed from any detectable sense of purpose. It also suffers the misfortune of continuing De Palma’s leering heterosexual perversions into an era when they’re decades out of date, removed form any possible “It was a different time” excuses. Worse yet, it suffers the worst fate any film could ever stumble into: it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. Still, I found myself on the verge of enjoying it in nearly every scene, frustrated that I could never quite get there.

I was majorly disappointed by this film. It’s difficult to imagine there will be a bigger disappointment all year. The drop-off in quality between David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature It Follows (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2015) to this straight-to-VOD follow-up is about as steep as any I can remember from any director. And yet, if someone told me they saw a Southland Tales-level messterpeice in it I’d almost believe them. I don’t at all blame A24 for quietly dumping it into home-streaming distribution after purchasing it at the height of its festival-circuit buzz, but I can almost understand what its apologists see in it if I squint from the right angle. This is a twisty, farcical fantasy piece about a hipster LA loser (Andrew Garfield) who follows his own vanilla tits-and-ass prurience into a vast, impossible conspiracy network that secretly runs the entertainment industry (and, by extension, the world). Pop music cults, hobo royalty, serial dog murderers, and an ancient succubus assassin are major players in a vast, mysterious organization that the movie deliberately sets up to provide no possible satisfying answers. It’s a horned-up, surrealist, Madlibs-style approach to storytelling that I’d normally find majorly exciting, but in this case fails to entertain in two significant ways: its jokes are not funny, and it’s impossible to care about its fuckboy protagonist. Many people had issues with the logical & tonal inconsistencies of It Follows, but that film at last has a strong grasp on its sense of atmosphere & a main character whose wellbeing we’re actually invested in, whether positively or negatively (with the added bonus of using that POV for an identifiable thematic purpose). By contrast, Under the Silver Lake is just a sunshine-noir moodboard where things just kinda happen, until they don’t. It eats up two and a half hours of your time and then it’s over. You just move along with your day, case closed.

As with De Palma’s seedier works, the major question at the center of this titties-obsessed Madlibs mystery is how much its depiction of a mediocre man’s lurid, vanilla sexuality is a shameless participation and how much is open mockery. We spend the entire film looking through the eyes of a listless, cigarette-smoking slob who’s absolutely dogshit at having sex. He’s the kind of just-rolled-out-of-bed, low-effort hipster that makes you want to shout “Take a bath!” at the screen, yet when he actually does take a bath the result is entirely unsatisfying. That disgust is intentional, as everyone he encounters on his amateur sleuth trail makes a point to comment on his stench. This is a man who punches children, slags the homeless, and peeps on his undressed neighbors through his Hitchcock Brand™ binoculars. It’s doubtful that we’re supposed to think of him as an upstanding citizen. Still, the default-misogyny of his POV works its way into the film’s DNA. No woman’s breasts or buttcheeks will grace the screen without a proper close-up. Bikini-clad hotties bark like rabid dogs in go-nowhere nightmare sequences. Sex workers & actresses are both coveted & mocked for the supposed degradation of their trades. This is a movie that gets its kicks by indulging in the male gaze, then has a character verbalize the phrase “the male gaze” just so you know the exercise is self-aware. At least when De Palma indulged in the same self-aware prurience his own sexuality was mildly kinky & risqué. Under the Silver Lake’s sex drive is the microwaved leftovers of a mid-afternoon trip to Hooters; it’s the faux intellectual titties-fetish of a Playboy Magazine collector; it’s the inner sexual life of someone who still wears cargo shorts in the 2010s. It’s boring, it’s scared of women, and yet any commentary on the sexuality of American pop culture you can derive from what’s onscreen would be meeting this shapeless mess more than halfway.

For every pointless scene throughout this journey into Juggs Magazine mystique, I found myself genuinely straining to enjoy myself. There’s almost a Greasy Strangler quality to its repetition, awkwardness, and ham-fisted interpretation of genre where noir = window blinds & missing dames. I just wasn’t amused, or aroused, or intrigued in the ways the film wanted me to be, which ultimately made this feel like a lot of effort for zero payoff. Kudos to anyone who managed to have Southland Tales-style Messterpeice Theatre fun with it, because I’m truly jealous. The only line in the film that resonated with me in any significant way was “It’s silly to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.” This move does not matter, and I feel very silly indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ape Man (1943)

When looking back to the heights of Old Hollywood, what we’re really getting nostalgic for is the glut & extravagance of the old studio system. The high production values & workman sense of craft that went into each studio production in that era are missing from modern cinema’s more routine, mundane releases. For a brief, glorious time, even horror had its day in the sun during that studio era, particularly thanks to Universal’s Famous Monsters brand. This, of course, birthed the iconic career if Bela Lugosi, who starred in prestigious horror productions like The Black Cat & Todd Browning’s Dracula early in his career. Horror was treated as a flash-in-the-pan trend by the Hollywood studio system, however, and Lugosi’s leading man work eventually dried up. Shortly after putting in his final top-bill performance for a major studio in Columbia Pictures’ Return of the Vampire (which is widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Dracula), Lugosi was nudged out of the major studio system and into B-picture work in the less nostalgia-worthy territory of Old Hollywood’s so-called “poverty row” studios, purveyors of schlock. The step down from Universal horror to poverty row B-pictures was exactly as drastic as it sounds and Lugosi’s first work for Monogram Pictures, The Ape Man, was clearly the actor’s first major “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” moment.

Although far from the worst, The Ape Man may be the first major embarrassment of Bela Lugosi’s career. It was also one of the few instances of his earlier works where he wasn’t asked to play a vampire. Instead, the Hungarian-born icon plays the titular ape man, the monstrous result of a failed experiment by the other horror movie staple he was often typecast as: a mad scientist. Weirdly enough, the film begins after the scientist has already transformed to his hideous ape man visage (which just looks like an especially hairy member of The Monkees). In later works like Alligator People or The Fly, that kind of introduction would mean that his failed experiment downfall would then be portrayed in a longform flashback. Instead, we’re simply told that he was once fully human and are asked to watch in horror as he hunts down innocent victims for their spinal fluid, which he shoots directly into his arm like heroin as a makeshift, temporary cure for his ape-ificiation (an image that would be just as shocking in the 40s as it is now, given heroin addiction’s prominence at the time). The ape man scientist dresses like a typical gangster when venturing out for these kills, equipped with a fedora and a cape. The difference is that instead of using a gun to slay his spinal fluid-providing victims, he uses his accomplice, an actual ape. The film’s main conflict is in following two news reporters as they get to the bottom of these mysterious killings, increasingly getting hot on the ape & ape man’s metaphorical tails. (Apes don’t have tails.)

The basic plot of The Ape Man has promise to it as a Bela Lugosi cheapie, but the film itself is a total embarrassment. The score is punishingly repetitive; Lugosi’s given nothing interesting to do outside donning the ape make-up; his primate accomplice is clearly just a dude in a costume shop gorilla suit; and the two reporters who chase them down cynically poke fun at the frivolity of the film’s premise, since horror had become something of a derided fad by the time of the film’s production. It probably doesn’t help that Monogram Pictures allowed The Ape Man to fall into public domain status, so the only commercially available prints are horrifically shoddy DVD transfers with nearly incomprehensible visual & aural clarity. I might’ve been better off streaming the film from YouTube than watching my bargain bin physical copy (purchased from a yard sale), but at least I got to exercise my rudimentary lip-reading skills?

The worst part about all of this is knowing that things only got worse for Bela Lugosi’s career. He might’ve had a couple decent Universal productions left in him as second fiddle to rival Boris Karloff (1945’s The Body Snatcher is especially great), but the rest of his career as a leading man would be relegated to works exactly like this slice of poverty row dreck. Even though The Ape Man was a nothing of a film, that wouldn’t stop Lugosi & Monogram from teaming up again for its sequel, Return of the Ape Man. Lugosi would even work again with The Ape Man director William Beaudine, whose prestigious credits include titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula & Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, on the infamously terrible Martin & Lewis knockoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least that poorly-remembered gem is notably terrible, though. It’s possibly the most shrill & aggressively unfunny film I’ve ever seen, but The Ape Man is an even worse kind of awful: the unforgivably bland kind. It’s the first truly sour note in a career that had outworn its welcome in the Old Hollywood studio system, even if that career persisted endearingly in horror fans’ hearts in the more forgiving decades since. Yet, its worst offense is in being an entirely forgettable bore.

-Brandon Ledet

La La Land (2016)

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“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?”

La La Land was a rare cinematic experience for me. In its first 20min stretch, I was outright hostile towards the film. I felt even more alienated in the two big production musical numbers that open La La Land than I did watching Moana, a movie that’s appeal I didn’t understand to the point where I had to abstain out of fairness from directly reviewing it. The emotional impact & entertainment value of a traffic jam erupting into a big budget musical number about Los Angeles sunshine reminded me of the lofty gravitas of a car commercial, specifically that one where the hamsters gather all of New York for a Central Park jam session. This adverse reaction to the material wasn’t necessarily a fault of the movie’s, but more a personal shortcoming  when it comes to appreciating musical theater, especially when a chorus sings in unison, drowning out raw emotion with the shared mediocrity of a massive collective. Something changed for me during La La Land, though. Somewhere in the first act, when the narrative got smaller and the songs became more intimate, I finally got lost in the film’s love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, particularly of the Fred & Ginger variety. La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.

The content matches the form nicely here, continuing Damien Chazelle’s hot streak as a gifted, bare bones storyteller after his exciting one-two punch of the jazzy thriller Whiplash and the gleeful pulp of Grand Piano. Just as the modern-minded crowd and musical theater traditionalists must find a common ground to appreciate where Chazelle is pushing the movie musical as a medium, the film’s protagonists also begin their story at odds with each other. Playing an actor and a jazz pianist who suffer several hostile meet cutes before they begin to reconcile their mutual attraction, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are perfectly convincing as our modern equivalent of Classic Hollywood charmers. Their Adam’s Rib-style hostility at an awkward pool party is where the film started to lure me into its web. By the time their romance flourished in movie theaters, jazz clubs, and planetariums only to flounder & fizzle once realism disrupted their romantic ideal, I was already humming “City of Stars” to myself and preparing to buy a poster to hang on my imaginary dorm room wall. The couple pushes each other out of their comfort zones in order to survive an ever-changing world; the jazz musician must learn to innovate to stay relevant, the actor must risk embarrassment to achieve success. In addition to their good looks, ease with comic timing, and gorgeous costuming, the couple at the center of La La Land appeal to the audience as a useful window into what the film was trying to accomplish. When their realistically cyclical, impermanent romance clashes with a surreal movie musical reverie in the film’s final act, the full scope of Chazelle’s ambition becomes crystal clear and any complaints about taste or expectation going in feel silly & irrelevant. This is a work that graciously rewards after its initial discomfort, whether you’re a musical theater traditionalist who needs to be pushed into exploring new ideas or a cold-hearted modernist cynic who needs to be warmed up to what the medium can accomplish even in its purist form.

I think it’s worth noting that while La La Land is sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile with personal sensibilities, it’s always gorgeous to look at. The film’s intense colors, beautiful dresses, and attention to symmetry & movement amount to a carefully constructed spectacle that, like Hail Caesar!, is a welcome reminder of the scale & fantasy that only Old Hollywood productions could muster. Whether Chazelle is overlaying shots of neon signs with poured champagne as a direct nod to Hollywood musical past or he’s using that hyper real abstraction for entirely new, surreal purpose, La La Land is consistently a wonder to behold. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the film’s content in its earliest stretch, I was never turned off by its form or energeric execution. All I needed to be won over by La La Land was for that manicured spectacle to be put to a more intimate & modern use, an emotional heft that could be whispered instead of belted for the back rows to hear. I get the feeling that the film intended to not only teach me a little appreciation for the value of its medium, but also to push those on the other side of the divide over to my own modernist, heretical sensibilities. And just when those two audiences meet for a brief moment of shared appreciation, the film then disrupts & explodes its own rules, breaking down the walls of that divide for a brief glimpse of how both audiences were always of the same mind without ever being aware of it. Innovation & tradition are equally important in La La Land and when they’re done right, they’re practically the same thing. There’s a long, discomforting path to that realization, one that’s made more difficult for some than others, but once you reach its epiphanic destination, it’s a real game-changer, an eye opener, one that’s well worth the initial unease.

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

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“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet

If Released in Another Time, Big Business (1988) Could’ve Easily Been a ZAZ-Style Spoof of Old Hollywood Farces

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Somehow during our lengthy conversation surrounding our February Movie of the Month, the Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin swapped-twins comedy Big Business, I had foolishly overlooked who had actually directed the damned thing. Big Business‘s director, Jim Abrahams, is the “A” in the infamous comedic filmmaking team ZAZ. Along with brothers David & Jerry Zucker, Abrahams was responsible for popularizing the concept of the spoof comedy. As a collaborative trio ZAZ penned & directed Airplane!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots, Hot Shots Part Deux, and the Naked Gun trilogy, which pretty much covers the pillars of the medium. Flying solo, Abrahams also has screenwriting credits for Scary Movie 4, Kentucky Fried Movie, an some horrific-looking monster titled Jane Austen’s Mafia!. In isolation the name Jim Abrahams failed to ring any bells, but the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker was a force to be reckoned with, one that changed the comedy cinema landscape if not for the better than at least for the sillier.

Although I feel foolish that I didn’t recognize Abrahams’ hand in Big Business sooner, it totally makes sense in retrospect. The most crucial aspect of the film that stuck out to me was its dedicated homage to Old Hollywood comedies. Viewing the film with Abrahams in mind now, I see a much different sort of half-formed homage lurking in Big Business. It’s basically just one gentle push away from an Old Hollywood spoof. The film’s swapped-twins contrivance, grand hotel setting, borrowed gag from Duck Soup, endless line of eligible bachelors waiting to marry its protagonists, narrow-minded depictions of the difference between wealth & poverty, and over-the-top lengths to keep its mismatched twins from ending the ruse all once played like a love letter to a bygone era in studio system filmmaking. Now they feel like seeds to what could’ve been a fullblown Old Hollywood spoof after a couple of joke-heavy rewrites. The framework for a ZAZ-style spoof is lurking just under the surface of Big Business, waiting, begging for a sea of juvenile gags to fill in the blanks.

I think the major reason why Big Business didn’t take that direction is a question of timing. The film was released during a time frame where Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker were still a functioning unit, but the timing was off for an Old Hollywood spoof in terms of box office potential. If you look at the trio’s M.O., they generally stuck to spoofing film genres that were active in the era in which they worked. Airplane! spoofed the large-cast disaster film genre (specifically parodying Airport 1975 most heavily) at the tail end of the decade when they were A Thing. Top Secret! spoofed spy movies, a genre that never dies. The Hot Shots! series spoofed 80s & 90s action cinema in a time when that would’ve still been a relevant target, focusing heavily on Top Gun & Rambo for inspiration. Seeing as how it would’ve been impossible for Abrahams to create an Old Hollywood spoof in the Old Hollywood era, given that he was a child in its heyday, he would have had to achieved that distinction sometime in the 2000s or 2010s, long after the dissolution of the ZAZ partnership & well into his old age. Why so recently? Nostalgia has been kind to homages & parodies to the genre, which made room for wonderful comedies like Forgotten Silver & Hail, Caesar! to exist (though not flourish financially, unfortunately). In the 1988 an Old Hollywood spoof might’ve been hard to pitch to financiers, but in 2016 it’d have a much easier time making it to the cinema.

As is, Big Business has no interest in being an Old Hollywood parody. It is instead a loving homage to a bygone era in filmmaking. What Abrahams does instead is update the era’s comedic farce conventions for a 1980s sensibility, which was much less of a commercial gamble. That’s not to say that his history in genre parody did not inform his work in Big Business, though. If nothing else, Abrahams’ films display a consistent, innate understanding of genre tropes & how they can be made effective, whether for a genuine or a sarcastic effect. And if there’s any question to whether or not Big Business‘s toying with the idea of Old Hollywood parody was intentional, just look to Abrahams’ directorial cameo in the film. He plays a homeless drunk who rubs his eyes & tosses his liquor bottle aside when he keeps seeing the two sets of twins separately, a gag that’s about as old as comedy cinema itself (if not older). At the very beat before the end credits the film reveals that a second, well-dressed, far-from-homeless character was also portrayed by Abrahams, a reveal that’s meant to play as a huge prank. That moment feels like it easily could’ve been at home in the theoretical spoof version of Big Business that sadly doesn’t exist, not only because it feels so hokily old-fashioned, but also because its “Gotcha!” sarcasm is such a classic ZAZ-style tactic.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1988’s Big Business, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its borrowed gag from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

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Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.

-Brandon Ledet