Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists can sit and spin.
The brackets as they currently stand.
Introducing the competitors. Weighing in at 106 minutes the latest comedy from legendary directing team Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!
And weighing in at 116 minutes, the latest comedy from legendary director Shane Black, The Nice Guys!
So, Hail, Caesar! (henceforth known as Hail Caesar to save my sanity and to prevent me from thinking about Panic! at the Disco) is an odd beast. When I heard we were getting a new comedy from the Coen brothers set in the golden age of Hollywood, I was expecting something along the lines of Inside Llewyn Davis (still my favourite Coens film) or Barton Fink. Instead what I got was something more along the lines of the surreality of Burn After Reading.
The plot, such as it is, is that of Eddie Mannix, a fixer working in Hollywood for one of the major studios dealing with various day to day problems such as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor on the studio’s premier epic film being kidnapped, and DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the lead actress in the studio’s latest musical being pregnant without a husband, and two gossip colunnists (Tilda Swinton, both of them) hounding him for scoops, and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy actor who has been inexplicably attached to a period drama with hilarious results, and… and… you get the idea.
Honestly, the plot is hard to explain because there’s so little of it. Instead, the film presents a series of problems for Mannix to overcome, and a series of excuses for the Coen Brothers, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, to shoot some pastiches to old Hollywood genres, including several fun musical sequences. It’s hard to really say anything about the film because, as a comedy, the whole thing hinges on the jokes. And I laughed all the way through, especially at the exchanges involving Ralph Fiennes playing an increasingly agitated director at his new cowboy star’s inability to act, and a scene involving Josh Brolin’s Mannix inviting several leaders of different faiths to determine whether the studio’s new religious epic is in any way offensive. Which all sounds extremely vague, I know, but to give away more would be to just spell out the punchlines.
Perhaps Hail Caesar‘s greatest strength is the absolute care and reverence with which it treats the old Hollywood standards it parodies. Yes, there’s light mocking of every genre they lampoon, but it’s all coming from a place of absolute love for Hollywood’s golden age, a love exemplified in the arc of Eddie Mannix. Much of his personal story concerns him being headhunted for a new job, away from the odd freaks and stresses he manages in his role as a Hollywood fixer, but it’s clear that he loves his job, and the oddities that come with it. His arc is one of redemption and solidification, a strange contrast to the Coens’ usual trick of ending with the lead character unsure of their place in the world they inhabit (see Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis for solid examples of this). Hail Caesar is a feel good flick, and in my opinion, a damn funny comedy.
The Nice Guys, on the other hand, takes a more targeted approach in terms of its comedy. The casting of Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger is no accident because this is Shane Black explicitly taking on L.A. Confidential.
Its plot felt almost as all over the place as Hail Caesar in a way, as Ryan Gosling’s permanently drunk, half incompetent private detective Holland March is forced to team up with Crowe’s permanently scowling private enforcer Jackson Healy to investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star, before being dragged into a larger conspiracy that involves large law enforcement agencies, Hollywood producers, and the Detroit automotive industry.
In this sense, it is once again spoofing the hard boiled noir genre, wherein every murder and double cross is part of some larger plan, and altogether The Nice Guys came together in a more cohesive manner in the final act than Hail Caesar managed.
Again, this is hard to talk about without just giving away all the best jokes, but worth pointing out is the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe, as well as both of them acting alongside Angourie Rice, playing March’s young precocious daughter Holly. Crowe admittedly plays Crowe, very much the scowly straight man of the piece, so most of the comedic heavy lifting falls on Gosling, who surprised me with how able he was to draw laughs, given his recent succession of serious roles where he seems to stare into the middle distance and speak as little as possible.
Really, The Nice Guys is Shane Black doing what he does best. It has everything I could have asked for from one of his films, down to the wisecracking child and a nice nod to his penchant for setting films during the Christmas period.
Both these films were strong, but I have to give the edge to The Nice Guys for managing to come together in a way that Hail Caesar never quite managed. There wasn’t quite anything in it that made me laugh as loud or as long as the now famous “Would that it were so simple” sequence from Hail Caesar, but the strength of the story and the performances and the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe helped endear The Nice Guys to me just that little bit more.