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Channing Tatum and fellow sailors dance in "Hail, Caesar!"

Over the weekend, I watched the Super Bowl and got caught up on this week’s movies, and I got far more entertainment value from the latter. This came especially from Hail, Caesar!, which was good enough to make me think of my favorite Coen Brothers movies. Fargo is their best one, followed in some order by Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and O, Brother Where Art Thou? I would rank both The Hudsucker Proxy and Hail, Caesar! just below that second tier. I guess I’m saying that this Hollywood satire is their best movie in this century. I’m okay with that assessment.

The movie stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a fixer for a big Tinseltown studio in 1951 who buffs up his stars’ images by making the messes in their personal lives disappear and feeding fake stories to the gossip columnists (identical twins and bitter rivals who are both played by Tilda Swinton). Eddie’s already mulling over a job offer from Lockheed when his biggest challenge comes up: A-lister Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped from the set of the Biblical epic that he’s filming, and Eddie receives a ransom note from the cabal of Communist screenwriters who have him.

Much of this is an excuse for the Coens to execute a big pastiche of 1950s movies that made my inner movie geek go insane. Everything’s in perfect place: the stilted dialogue in the Biblical epic, the bygone sense of glamour in the studio’s prestigious romance, the cheesiness of the low-budget Western. The movie seems most itself when it bursts into song and dance, like during the big synchronized-swimming number that stars Scarlett Johansson. (This is ripped off from the 1953 Esther Williams vehicle Million Dollar Mermaid. You can run down the movie’s extensive movie references here.) Even better is the number with Channing Tatum and a bunch of other guys playing sailors in a bar. Tatum sings passably and tap-dances with astonishing fluidity considering that he’s a hip-hop dancer who’s new to tap, which is a whole different animal. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli makes creative use of the tablecloths and the metal bar in the dance, too. The number is entitled “No Dames” and is incredibly homoerotic, by the way. Given how many characters in this movie turn out to be closeted, this is easily the Coens’ gayest film, and I say that as a compliment.

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There’s a lot of famous people, but the best turn comes from Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy actor who gets miscast in a sophisticated, highbrow melodrama. There’s a great comic exchange on the movie’s set when the director (Ralph Fiennes) tries to coach him on saying the line, “Would that it were so simple.” The Coens set this character up to be a dumb hayseed, but then he gets pulled into the kidnapping plot and turns out to be a sharp operator as well as this film’s moral center. Ehrenreich plays it all with great gusto, and does some nifty roping tricks into the bargain. I felt a twinge of vindication watching him, because I sniffed him out as a great talent when I reviewed Beautiful Creatures two years ago. Now more people know about him, and I can tell them I knew him when.

This movie does take a while to find its rhythm, and Eddie’s Catholic anguish over whether his job is right in the eyes of the Lord is too wispy to hang the plot on. (Brolin still does a fine job of playing straight man to all the clowns around him.) Even so, I haven’t even mentioned Eddie’s session with three Christian clergymen and an applecart-upsetting rabbi (Robert Picardo) over the religious content of the Bible movie. The Coens’ nihilistic fatalism was getting old, so it’s nice to see them leave it behind, and it’s why I’ll watch Hail, Caesar! a bunch more times before I return to No Country for Old Men or Inside Llewyn Davis. You can count me a happy Coenhead.

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