Friday, February 5, 2016


Opening today:

Back in 2009 Jane Austen collaborated with another young writer. A fellow named Seth Grahame-Smith added cannibal ghouls and martial arts action scenes to Austen’s 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, and called the results Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The stunt was a hit, giving Grahame-Smith a career, and starting a less-than-welcome vogue for such literary or historical “mashups”—Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters followed, for instance, as did Grahame-Smith’s own Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Even though her participation was posthumous and without consent, from a literary point of view Austen was the winner in this odd collaboration. I listened to the audiobook of P&P&Z (excellently read by the droll, deadpan Katherine Kellgren) some years ago on a road trip, and as it went into its homestretch, I noticed myself sighing with impatience every time the text shifted to a horror scene. Such are Austen’s chops that I would have preferred to drop the ludicrous zombie gimmick and just hear how her story turned out—even though I’d already read it.

Still, on its own terms this one-joke book was a reasonably funny joke, and now it’s been made into a fairly lavish movie. Adapted and directed by the American Burr Steers (of 17 Again), it departs freely from Grahame-Smith’s storyline, but considering what he did to Austen, Grahame-Smith hardly has grounds to complain.

Wary-eyed Lily James of last year’s Cinderella plays heroine Elizabeth Bennett. As in the book, Lizzy and her sisters are in the market for well-to-do husbands, but they have also been trained in the fighting arts of the East, allowing them to wield swords and dismember any hungry undead that should wander into a country dance or accost them as they’re on their way to make a social call. Sam Riley, excellent as the title character’s sidekick in Maleficent, here plays Darcy, who can’t help but fall for Lizzy despite his pride.

Most of the other major characters are retained, though often in wildly different form. The scoundrel Wickham (Jack Huston), for instance, is a proponent of a zombie appeasement scheme, while haughty Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is a formidable zombie-hunter with a chic eye-patch. Charles Dance gets to play Mr. Bennett relatively straight, but Matt Smith camps up Mr. Collins to a sketch-comedy degree.

In short, P&P&Z the movie is outrageously silly. It isn’t very scary, but the squeamish should be forewarned that unlike 2013’s World War Z it is quite gory at times, with some inventively gruesome sight gags.

Overall, I thought it sustained itself for its entire length a little better, maybe, than the book, because it brings the material more of a sense of…well, female empowerment. Masterly as Jane Austen’s works are, there’s something troubling about the way these tales of near-powerless women anxiously waiting for husbands are often used by modern readers as fantasy fodder—a romanticizing of social and economic strictures to which Austen, for all her talent, had no choice but to conform.

It would be a little much to call P&P&Z, by contrast, a feminist film. Admittedly, the warrior-woman archetype comes with its own set of male fantasies and presumptions. But something about the movie’s Regency-era ladies arming themselves under their Empire waist gowns feels bracing and liberating. It seems possible, somehow, that Jane would approve.

Hail, Caesar!George Clooney never seems happier onscreen than when he gets to act like a buffoonish clod of the first order. And the Coen Brothers have repeatedly been happy to indulge him—in Intolerable Cruelty, in Burn After Reading, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

They do so again in this spoof of midcentury Hollywood. Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a leading man in the Victor Mature/Charlton Heston/Kirk Douglas high-testosterone mold, who gets kidnapped right off the set of the titular Biblical epic.

The kidnappers are a cadre of rather well-heeled communist screenwriters who’ve decided to take a break from their usual business of inserting Red content into movies and to step up their game by demanding ransom from “Capital Pictures.” Baird’s a boob, but he’s an agreeable sort, and when he listens to his captors hold forth on politics he has to admit that maybe they have a point.

This notion—what if Malibu commies really acted the way the McCarthy-ites thought they did?—has possibilities. Much as I enjoyed Trumbo, there’s probably something healthy in blowing a raspberry at its easy pieties (Louis CK provides that service within that film). The trouble in Hail, Caesar! is that these scenes, and many others during the film’s first half, dawdle on forever and land with a thud.

Whole strands, like the one involving Scarlett Johansson as an Esther-Williams-ish “aqua-musical” star, add little to the movie beyond length. And there are extended set pieces, like the one in which a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) struggles to deliver a line in a “sophisticated” comedy, that simply aren’t the riot the Coens seem to think they are. The movie looks great, and it has a funny line here or a lyrical image there, but for a long time it refuses to take off.

But then it does. Typically when a Coen picture goes wrong, it does so in the second half—after a brilliant beginning, the story collapses over the Brothers’ stubborn distaste for providing dramatic payoffs. But Hail, Caesar! rewards patience with a painfully slow opening act. About the time that a film editor (Frances McDormand) learns an important safety tip for her profession, the movie starts to find genuine laughs, and some heart, too.

The real star isn’t Clooney but a growly Josh Brolin as studio boss “Eddie Mannix,” who, like his real-life namesake at MGM, serves as a “fixer,” managing the crises and scandals of Capital’s stable. A straight shooter, Eddie’s been offered a job in aviation that would have regular hours and dignity, but he enjoys cleaning up after his rambunctious wards.

Brolin keeps it low-key and holds the picture together, while several other cast members—Ehrenreich, Veronica Osorio as a Carmen Miranda-type musical star, Tilda Swinton as identical-twin Hedda Hopper types—nail their goofy scenes. By the time we get to Channing Tatum in sailor drag, in a double-entendre-packed On the Town-style dance number called “No Dames,” the movie is on a pretty full-fledged roll.

What makes act two of Hail, Caesar! unexpectedly a little touching is its peculiarly un-ironic concern with spirituality. It’s a while before we realize, for instance,  that when Eddie, a devout Catholic who wearies his priest with too-frequent visits to the confessional, consults Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Orthodox authorities about the Hail, Caesar! script, he isn’t just covering his ass, he honestly wants to know if they’re getting the theology right.

Eventually it becomes clear that Eddie is troubled by the disconnect between the triviality of what his industry produces and the satisfaction he takes in his work—he wants a justification by faith. I wonder if the Coens want this too. For them, faith and the movies seem to be the same thing.


  1. Great reading...thanks for the insoght. My personal questioning of faith led me toy Church of the Shiny Rocks! You are a good man Mark...