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Dunham: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ a cinematic romp rife with good humor

The newest flick from the Coen brothers is an ambitiously comprehensive critique of topics like prim-and-proper dramas, the notorious band of blacklisted Communist writers (Trumbo tried to hit this note but fell flat), sensational journalism, ‘prestige’ pictures, and the whole social realm of the 1950’s Hollywood Machine.

In a form typical of the cinematically subversive duo, there is a wonderful amount of intertextuality and self-referential ploys that form many layers of story within the overarching narrative. The movie studio of Capitol Pictures is reused from the Coen’s 1991 surrealist meta-mystery Barton Fink, this time expanding beyond John Turturro’s skittish writer to the studio fixer in charge of clipping the pervasive, ever-growing grapevine of juicy tabloid-primed stories. These range from covering up news of a musical star’s illegitimate child, artistic-management between a dainty drama director and a lead-cast stuntman who can’t act, and finally the story’s main conflict: the kidnapping of blue chip hotshot actor Baird Whitlock.

Hail, Caesar! features an ensemble cast: there’s Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton – the list goes on and on. These top-caliber actors work wonders as they portray colorful archetypes of Hollywood, inhabiting their respective realms with thespian fervor. All create vivid characterizations despite the relatively short screen-time of some of the more minor roles.

This romp is rife with critique and humor. It’s one of the few films I have sat through in recent memory during which I was constantly laughing, especially in a scene containing four heads of assorted religion discussing the Holy Trinity. The cinematography is of the world-class skill with which frequent collaborator Roger Deakins imparts on any film. What caught my eye is that several shots are allusions to great works of art, the takeaway for me being a replication of the iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” with Tatum standing in for the wooden-indentured patriot.

The film’s editing – done with expected proficiency by the brother – is crisp, jumping through the film’s many vignettes with ease and balance. As in nearly any Coen film, there is a suitcase full of money and an entangled mystery plotline; but Caesar has a fairly tied-up ending with reasonable character motivations and denouement. It differs from some of the duo’s other films such as Fargo or The Big Lebowski, where the understanding of all elements within the story become lost in the cinematic haze.

Caesar is a solid film with a wonderful array of depictions. It’s hard not enjoy this take on the subgenre of films about Hollywood’s ever-encroaching system of operations. The Artist nails ‘20s Hollywood, The Player ‘70s Hollywood, and Caesar deals with the late studio period, smack dab in the middle of the two. Containing elements of a blockbuster crowd-pleaser and intellectual ruminations on Classical Hollywood cinema, you’ll find it well-worth the price of admission.

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