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quinta-feira, 3 de março de 2016

Hail, Caesar! review: 'the Coens' screwball stumble'

The Coen brothers' razzle-dazzle Hollywood comedy has more gags than plot, but George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes steal the show
The Coen brothers’ whole oeuvre is so winkingly savvy about the genres, styles and fetishes of films past that they habitually feel like pastiche artists, or devious magpies. They plunder, they remake, they dust off an old recipe and fill it with new delights.
They obviously know a great deal about the ins and outs of the studio era, enough to launch a satirical Exocet missile or two: once before, in 1991’s Barton Fink, they explored the black heart of Hollywood in 1941, flinging John Turturro’s hapless scribe into a Kafkaesque inferno.
Hail, Caesar!, their latest, is much more of a comedy, and you wouldn’t quite call it a sequel, even though it uses the name of the same fictional studio – Capitol Pictures – which lured Barton in with a thousand dollars a week before consuming his soul. It’s set a little over a decade later, in a post-war Los Angeles that hasn’t yet been ransacked by the tribulations of the McCarthy period, and follows a single fraught day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Capitol’s "Head of Physical Production".
Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton in Hail, Caesar!
Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton in Hail, Caesar!Credit: © Universal Pictures/Alison Cohen Rosa
For all that’s being flung at him, Eddie is the film’s centre of gravity, and Brolin’s unfussy performance is a quiet bedrock here, never overegging his flickers of panic. Four films in particular are taking up his time and attention, two of them pure sideshows – an all-male naval musical starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), and an Esther Williams-style swimming spectacular, which has DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) as a glam mermaid being swallowed up by a whale, then erupting lavishly and without a scratch from the middle of a Busby Berkeley overhead set-piece.
The daft, gleaming perfection of this number – instantly recalling the psychedelic dream sequence in The Big Lebowski – is half the joke. And when Tatum gets his big scene, an uproariously homoerotic barroom song-and-dance medley called “No Dames”, it’s hard to suppress big grins at how brazenly the Coens are both sending up and celebrating how unmentionably gay that era’s fads for entertainment were.
These are showstoppers: literally so, as they have almost nothing to do with the main plot, and advance it not a jot. We spend more time on the set of two other films-within-the-film – one a Quo Vadis-style Roman-Biblical epic called Hail, Caesar!, which stars dim, pliable star-of-the-moment Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Or, at least it does until two scheming extras drug him on set and bundle him off to a secret retreat on the Malibu coast.
The large group of conspirators responsible for this plan demand a ransom, but their intentions for it are not immediately disclosed. Meanwhile, we get to see Clooney wake up in full centurion armour and pancake make-up, and stumble around wondering what set he’s on and what exactly he’s meant to be doing.
The Coens have taken risks with Clooney in the past, and surely let him go way overboard as the preening, pomaded hero of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). He's better deployed as featured attraction than leading man – his flummoxed vanity in this role scores some solid laughs.
So does Tilda Swinton, at first. She plays Thora and Thessaly Thacker, identical twins who are rival gossip columnists, and deadly ones, at that – essentially Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, if the pair had been separated at birth and splashed each other with acid in passing. It’s an irresistible idea. Given Swinton, you just wish more had been done with it than running sight gags: the sisters constantly turn up at the same function wearing almost the same hat, and that’s about it.
It’s doubtful the Coens would take much of this as cutting criticism. Their film’s through-line wants to have a shrugging, so-what insouciance – you could almost call it limply plotted on purpose. Whole subplots like Johansson’s fizzle out with barely a raised eyebrow. But it’s still a bit of a shame.
Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!
Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!
Not for the first time, the Coens are doffing some elaborate headwear of their own to Preston Sturges, king of screwball, and you wish they were temperamentally more inclined to make their homage work with the tumbling skill and breathless ease that his films did. Instead, Hail, Caesar! keeps stumbling over its own best ideas as we stop to appreciate them – ditching momentum, preferring gaps for applause.
It’s almost fitting that the highlights are essentially outtakes – such a Coens-y gambit, this – from an elegant drawing-room comedy called Merrily We Dance, directed by a refined, prissily exacting in-house auteur called Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Westerns star, stunt maestro and contract player Hobie Doyle (an adorable Alden Ehrenreich) is ordered by Mannix to report on set, and has to twang his way sore-thumb-ishly through romantic dialogue Noël Coward would faint to hear him uttering.
Fiennes, affecting an air of infinite but grimacing patience, reminds you yet again what a secret weapon he is in comedy, and Ehrenreich’s every bit his equal. Forget the kidnapped matinee idol being lectured by communists up the coast – if there’s grand larceny in progress, it’s the film being stolen, right here.
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