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The Numbskull Series: Hollyboobs

Perhaps the best aspect about writer-directors Joel & Ethan Coen when it comes to making screwball and dark comedies is that despite the fact some of their characters are hopelessly stupid, the duo never looks down on their poor fools with malice or cruelty, rather, with sympathy and some degree of likability.

In Fargo, we don't fully shame Jerry Lundegaard for turning to two professional criminals as a way to make a quick payday - he's desperate to make ends meet, and to show to his asshole father-in-law that he's a mistake her daughter never should have made. How was he to know that Gaear Grimsrud was a sociopathic murderer; that his partner, Carl Showalter, was inept; and that the whole plan of kidnapping his wife to force a ransom of $80,000.00 would go so tits up? In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ulysses, Pete and Delmar are dim-witted criminals who escape the chain gang, but there's an earnestness to why they're escaping: the leader (Ulysses) is looking to win back his ex-wife from getting married again, while the other two (Pete and Delmar) are looking for redemption for their past crimes - albeit they find salvation by sheer accident.

From those two films I just mentioned, to Barton FinkThe Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading, these characters from the Brothers Coen are well-meaning folks who have bad things happen to them, simply end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or are just hopelessly in over their heads, who just happen to be the dullest knife in the proverbial drawer. The pair's latest comedy, Hail, Caesar!, is no exception. Baird Whitlock is Captiol Pictures' brightest stars, and he's on the set for his biggest production yet, Hail, Caesar!. Yes, he's played by George Clooney, and this is the fourth time he and Joel & Ethan have teamed up to play a dim-witted stooge (2000's Oh, Brother; 2003's Intolerable Cruelty and 2008's Burn After Reading). Unfortunately for him, he's been drugged, knocked out, and kidnapped off-set by a mysterious group known only as "The Future", who demand $100,000.00 for the safe return of their prized movie star. For most head honchos of a movie studio, this would make him or her jump out of their seat. For Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) - between dealing with posh filmmaker Laurence Laurentz's (a dry Ralph Fiennes) growing frustration that his performer, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) can't act outside of Western pictures, working out a way to keep DeAnna Moran's (Scarlett Johansson) out-of-wedlock pregnancy out of the tabloids, and fending off gossip vultures Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played hilariously by Tilda Swinton) - it's just another day at the office. Watching Brolin's Mannix try to put out one fire after another, along with wrestling a decision to leave the biz for a better job at Lockheed Martin is one of the film's highlights. We see the struggle, both physical and existential, as he ponders exactly what the hell he's doing with himself, essentially babysitting the lives of grown adults who just happen to be famous, charismatic and (in some cases) talented actors and actresses, all the while trying to stall the disappearance of Whitlock from leaking out to the press until he can be found.

Perhaps the biggest joy of watching Hail, Caesar! has to be the way Joel and Ethan lovingly poke fun at Hollywood tropes - Clooney's Whitlock is a Gregory Peck/Marlon Brando-type who finds politics - albeit by accident and tries to be just as serious about it as his acting - very clumsily, and to the irritation of Mannix. Channing Tatum, in addition to be a surprisingly good actor (see The Hateful Eight and Foxcatcher), has real talent as a song-and-dance man, as he's parodying Gene Kelly movies like Singin' In the Rain and Anchors Aweigh. Fiennes' thespian auteur Laurentz is obviously an early Laurence Olivier, and the production of Hail, Caesar! itself is a parody on big budget epics such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. Hell, the brothers get even the look of that movie dead right, from the look on set, to the costumes, to even the aspect ratio of the film! the ever-brilliant Roger Deakins pulls out all the stops to give new life to the "golden age of Hollywood" and he does it damn well.

Despite the star-power at hand, as well as the lovely cinematography, the film suffers from too many subplots which end up distracting up the main conflict: the pair could have honestly written out Johansson's character and story arc, as well as Jonah Hill, playing an accountant for the studio who agrees to make Moran an honest woman for the tabloids, as well as Frances McDormand, playing a film editor. Granted, it's fun to see these actors in a Coen Brothers movie, but they aren't given much to do except appear as borderline cameos for an easy payday. That said, it's easy for me to look past Hail, Caesar!'s shortcomings because it's abundantly clear the cast and crew are having a blast bringing old Hollywood back to vivid life, and the best part is that we're allowed in on the fun as well. I'd chalk this up as another winner for the guys who gave us Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit, and a solid example that even on their weakest day, Joel & Ethan Coen still put out quality work for us to chew on.

*** stars out of ****


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