Berlinale Diary 1: ‘Hail, Ceasar!’ is a Champagne of a Film

Film Review: The George Clooney starrer ‘Hail, Ceasar!’ is a swimmical with sly humour, that you’ll love!

Published
Entertainment
3 min read
George Clooney in a scene from <i>Hail, Ceasar!</i>

Hail, Caesar!, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen that opened the Berlin Film Festival 2016, is a champagne of a film. It is an adoring valentine to the golden age of Hollywood in the 50s, warts and all, top-lining George Clooney, Josh Brolin and Scarlett Johansson. The Coens had earlier reflected on Hollywood in Barton Fink, in which a New York playwright who has moved to Hollywood, must contend with an incendiary climax. Here, underpinning the studio ecosystem--with its scandals, extortion and gossip queens-- are sly humour, and unexpected comments on communism and religion.

George Clooney in a scene from<i> Hail, Ceasar!</i>
George Clooney in a scene from Hail, Ceasar!

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), plays a no-nonsense chief ‘fixer’ at Capitol Pictures, based on a real life Hollywood fixer with the same last name. The studio produces several movies at a time, with concurrent crises requiring Mannix’s resourcefulness at all times—producing ransom money when a star is kidnapped in mid-shoot, arranging for another star to adopt her own child born out of wedlock, and keeping the gossip columnists at bay, in order to preserve the ‘good clean fun’ image of the Hollywood stars.

Scarlett Johansson in a scene from <i>Hail, Ceasar!</i>
Scarlett Johansson in a scene from Hail, Ceasar!

The studio slate includes a swimmical (swimming musical), an extraordinary, kaleidoscopic, Esther Williams-style water ballet featuring Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid costume, a cowboy movie, a comedy of manners and a Ben Hur-style movie called Hail, Caesar!, featuring Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (Clooney), making for films within a film.

Clooney is kidnapped in mid-shoot—by a group of Hollywood screenwriters, who are also communists, demanding better pay (familiar story, hah!). When Clooney, after being rescued, appears to be convinced of their ideology, the fixer soundly thrashes him, notwithstanding his starry status. Although the anti-Communist McCarthyism witch-hunt of the 50s had also seen many Hollywood personalities being unfairly tried and isolated on grounds of being Communist sympathisers, and some believe its fall-out hastened the decline of the Hollywood studios, the Coen brothers have their Communists demand a kidnap ransom, which they bungle, as they try to send it to Russia via an elaborate submarine sub-plot.

On the other hand, the studios’ religious epic Hail, Caesar!, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, as was Ben-Hur, has Clooney kneel before and hail the crucified figure of the ‘priest of the Israelites’ and it looks like blockbuster material. There is a very funny scene in which Mannix invites the top religious leaders to ‘clear’ his film before release, by Those Who Can Be Offended. The pretentiousness and competitiveness of the leaders is a hoot (“God is a bachelor and he’s very angry,” says one). And yes, as Chief Fixer of the opiate of the masses, Mannix was pretty much a god, too. The outstanding highlights of the film include the water ballet, a fabulous sailors’ tap dance by Channing Tatum, the cowboy’s lasso tricks and Ralph Fiennes’ attempts to teach the cowboy stud (Alden Ehrenreich) parlour eloquence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Jess Gonchor’s production design and Mary Zophres’ costumes are superb. The end credits include: ‘This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.’ Could Hollywood have a more troubled relationship with its Censor Board than Bollywood?

(Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on meenakshishedde@gmail.com)

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