Hail, Caesar! (2016)
A lot of people1 seemed to hate or at least be disappointed in this, and I guess the reception from “official” critics is still overall positive—the critics’ score on RottenTomatoes is currently 83% while the audience score is only 46%. That’s a sort of interesting disconnect, because I don’t think this is one of those cases where the movie was just Too Deep and Artistic for Mainstream Audiences, Man; instead—and this is obviously a broad generalization—I think critics were like, “yay this gives us an opportunity to show off how much we know about old Hollywood and also recurring themes in the Coen brothers filmography” and audiences were like “but isn’t this all kind of empty and amoral and plotless?”
For the record, I enjoyed Hail, Caesar! a lot. I felt pretty indifferently towards all of the Coen brothers movies that I had seen before this, and maybe that actually helped; I didn’t really have any expectation of Depth for the movie to end up failing to meet. “Frivolous” seems to be one of the go-to words in reviews of this movie, to which: so2? On the one hand, I understand that it’s part of the genre convention of movie reviews to state as fact that a movie is good or bad in terms of some basic criteria that include socially accepted ideas of worth and morality. On the other hand, if you are not a professional movie critic, I’d rather know how you actually felt about the movie, not just what you think a critic is supposed to say.
Anyway, I don’t think every movie needs to say something Important about the human condition or whatever—and I don’t think most of the people who were disappointed with Hail, Caesar! do either, but because of the multiple Academy Award winning prestige of the Coen brothers, it apparently must be evaluated in that context rather than on its own goals and merits. Not that I have any authority to speak about the Coen brothers’ goals in making this movie, but like, as a series of semi-related comic vignettes in an interesting setting, I think it works? If you expect the kidnapping plot to be the main event, than yeah, probably not so much. If you expect Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to be the sort of protagonist whose journey you can get emotionally invested in, then also, yeah, probably not that much. But I don’t think this is intended to be a super plot-driven movie, nor do I think Mannix is supposed to be the moral center; the trailers may have suggested that, but I mean…trailers. Mannix’s job as a studio fixer allows the movie to tie together all of the different set-pieces, and his conflict w.r.t. accepting a high-level executive position at Lockheed vs. remaining in his current job is funny3, but do the Coen brothers intend the audience to care about him? I kind of doubt it.
Again, given my feelings towards previous Coen brothers movies, I totally get it if the writing just didn’t connect for certain audiences. I don’t think I necessarily even found any of the humor in Hail, Caesar! to be laugh-out-loud funny, but, like, obviously Hollywood Jewish communist plots and gay sailor musical numbers are going to be worth the price of admission for me. (Bonus: religious leaders debating about representations of Christ on film and actors speaking with ludicrously period-inappropriate accents in period dramas).
All That Jazz (1979)
Oh wow, I hated this movie. By 30 minutes in, I was like, “Jesus Christ, how much longer do I have to sit through this?” because quitting was not an option at that point—the pleasure of crossing the movie off of my “To Watch” list was worth the agony of actually watching the movie, apparently—so I’ll admit to watching most of this while browsing Tumblr/Facebook/etc. because that was the only way I could handle it.
Why was this on my “To Watch” list to begin with? Well, it’s a semi-autobiographical musical film directed by Bob Fosse, and, you know, Cabaret was great. So a musical journey through Bob Fosse’s psyche sounds awesome, until you realize that Bob Fosse’s psyche is super cliched. Middle aged workaholics with substance abuse problems and serial womanizing tendencies have become so boring to me that not even sporadic musical numbers really help to alleviate my frustration with that subject matter. And the lead actor, Roy Schneider, just has such a punchable face/voice/mannerisms, and maybe that’s intentional, but it certainly doesn’t make the movie any more watchable.
All That Jazz essentially has all of the incomprehensibility—in terms of non-linear storytelling, lack of a clear plot, ill-defined characters, and copious cutting to dream/fantasy sequences—of a Ken Russell movie without ever quite achieving the sheer levels of whimsical what-the-fuckness that make those worthwhile. And for something billed as a “musical film” it does not actually have that many musical numbers, so that’s disappointing.
In summary: ugh, fuck this.
I was super apprehensive about this, for several reasons:
- I semi-recently went through a period of obsession with the comics before the obnoxious Deadpool fandom sort of tainted my view of the character, so I was still in the “ugh, I’m over this” phase when Deadpool came out.
- I was not impressed by the seemingly universally well-received leaked test footage from 2014.
- A lot of the most defining and appealing aspects of Deadpool in the comics—the fourth-wall breaking, the ludicrously over-the-top violence, the weird disconnect between the cuteness of the character’s masked face and the grotesqueness of his actual face—seem very specific to the media form and hard to translate to a live action movie.
So I tried to go in with low expectations and also to watch it on opening weekend, before there was too much hype. And overall, I was actually pretty pleased. A few comments:
- Some of the more juvenile humor didn’t quite land for me—the opening credits and the bullet wound through the ass, for example, which earned an inordinate amount of laughter in the theater—but that’s true for the comics as well, so in terms of faithful adaptation: yes, fine.
- Deadpool’s unmasked countenance is not quite as horrific as it maybe should be to sell some of the plot points/character development, but if it were, it would probably be too gross to watch, so also: yes, fine.
- This is the comic book movie for which I was most familiar with the canon, and I do appreciate the Comic Book Guy smugness that I got to feel w.r.t. inclusion of Blind Al, Weasel, (implied) Hydra Bob, and the Bea Arthur bro tank.
- The fourth wall breaking works really well, I think, and that seemed like probably the hardest thing to adapt, because it could be so (unintentionally) obnoxious if done wrong.
- The happy romantic ending was probably the thing least in keeping with the spirit of the comics but frankly the most refreshing given the genre. Thank god Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) doesn’t die to further Wade/Deadpool’s tragic backstory, you know? And in addition, having her react to Wade’s big reveal of his disfigurement with “After a brief adjustment period and a bunch of drinks, it’s a face I’d be happy to sit on” rather than some variation of “Your appearance doesn’t matter4 because I love you for who you are on the inside”—even if that is the subtext of her actual comment—is just such a solid moment.
What’s Your Number (2011)
I mean, we all know this is not only a bad movie, but also a Problematic movie because of the slut-shaming inherent to the premise. But fuck it, sometimes one is seized by the desire to watch a shitty rom-com.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Well, to keep going on the defensive about Hail, Caesar!, because there are some ties there, in that:
- Singin’ in the Rain was made at around the same time that Hail, Caesar! takes place, and I guess Channing Tatum’s character in the latter is supposed to be in some ways a Gene Kelly stand-in.
- Both movies depict earlier periods of Hollywood, not necessarily super reverently. So there’s the whole meta-textual thing of contemporary Hollywood reproductions of Old Hollywood styles, whether that’s looking at the 1950s from the 2010s or the 1920s from the 1950s.
- Neither movie is super plot-driven, but rather use the “main plot” to tie together musical numbers and/or comic set-pieces.
I think 3 is the key thing for me—would we be more accepting of the structure of Hail, Caesar! if it were a full-on musical? Or just if it had been made n years ago? And for what minimum value of n? Because I don’t know that Singin’ in the Rain has super well-developed characters or Depth or whatever, and some of the dance sequences feel very long (oh god the Broadway Melody ballet), and yet, because we’re evaluating in terms of ’50s genre conventions, we have decided that it is one of the greatest American films of all times.
Not that I’m contesting that categorization, although mostly because what does it even mean to be a Great Film. I enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain a lot; I watched it while I was sick in bed, and it did successfully distract me from my nausea for a while, so that’s a thing. It’s always just weird watching old musicals—and not even necessarily like “classic” Hollywood musicals, because this also applies to Grease, I think—because man, are there some strange genre conventions there.
1. By which I guess I actually mean a lot of AV Club commenters, a friend from college, and someone on Facebook who thinks of herself as a cultural connoisseur. ^
2. And also, like, life is meaningless so what the fuck even is frivolity? What the fuck even is Depth? This is a question that I continually struggle with in my obnoxious post-Big Nihilist Revelation existence. ^
3. I mean, it worked for me. I don’t love people stating that things are or are not funny as fact. But I think the sort of unexpected reversal of Mannix seeing his sleazy, studio fixer job as difficult and important, and considering working at an aerospace firm to be an easy (and thus immoral, because hard work=Good, apparently) way out is a pretty solid comedic premise. ^
4. I’ll admit this is a bit of a pop cultural pet peeve of mine. Without getting to deep into it, can we stop telling average to gross looking dudes (e.g. any characters played by Michael Cera or Jonah Hill) that just for not being the biggest assholes in their movies, they automatically deserve the love of hot women? At least, not if we’re not going to tell the same thing to average-to-gross looking women (and like, actually average-to-gross looking women, not just hot women in glasses and ill-fitting clothes). ^