Friday, July 15, 2016

Tenuous Ties: 22 Jump Street / Hail Caesar!

Welcome to "Tenuous Ties", where we take two completely disparate movies, and write about them together because of some small thread connecting the two.  We're just trying to stay awake here.

22 Jump Street -- 2015, d. Phil Lord and Chris Miller -- TMN On Demand
Hail Caeser -- 2016, d. Joel and Ethan Coen -- VOD

21 Jump Street was a film that, on paper, shouldn't have worked.  Two somewhat marginalized actors, often dismissed as dumb or one note, starring in a comedy reboot of a (ridiculously silly, in hindsight) 1980's undercover cop drama set in high school?  It had "nice try" written all over it.

The curious thing is, though, it did work, thanks in large part to directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  The duo wasn't very widely known at the time, but they had a small and loyal cult following from their delightfully absurd, and endlessly quotable high school-set animated comedy about clones of famous world leaders (eg. Ghandi, JFK, Cleopatra) in their teenage years in the modern day.  Clone High was a perfect set-up for 21 Jump Street, since it spoofed a lot of the tropes of teen dramas (and over an all-too-short single season, many other television cliches as well).  Lord and Miller's stock-in-trade is playing off the humour of cliches, of the expected.  They expect an audience to be savvy enough to know where a typical plots twists or where the usual melodrama manifests, and then exploit that knowledge by either playing into the twist or melodrama to surreal levels, or by veering drastically away from it.

The posters for this movie are kind of
terrible though.  The fake posters for the
fake sequels are much better.
In 22 Jump Street they continue to do both those things, but here they also do a lot of metatextual references to sequels and sequel production, but keeping it in-scene or in story, sometimes confounding logic for the sake of the joke.  This gag is wound up to the nth degree during the end credits where the cast and crew present a few dozen possible sequels (with one of the better gags being the replacement of Jonah Hill with Seth Rogen due to contract disputes).

If the story of 21 Jump Street was about the nerd and the jock finding common ground and a dependency on one another as a team, the story of 22 Jump Street pushes that dependency into the analogy of uncomfortable clinging in an unhealthy romantic relationship. Channing Tatum's Jenko and Hill's Schmidt are put back in undercover in a college to uncover the source of a new and dangerous drug that led to a girl's death on campus.  Along the way, Jenko gets recruited by the football team, reverting back to his jock mentality, while a rejected Schmidt retreats into the school's art scene.  There's no "gay panic" here, as would've probably played out in a 1980's interpretation of this kind of story, but there's a fantastic therapy session (with John Hodgman as the therapist) which tackle's the troubled relationship spin head on.

22 Jump Street is a warped delight.  Everyone seems game, in roles large and small.  Some gags Tatum absolutely goes for.  I completely underrated him as an actor for years when he emerged as the hunky new romantic leading man, but in the past four or so years, he proved he has dramatic, comedic, action and romantic chops.  Hill likewise has shed his foul-mouthed, abrasive Cartman-in-real-life image after a strong series of dramatic performances, and so he can be a bit softer, more likeable in a comedic role without being caustic.

The two, in fact, are able to balance both the dramatic and the comedic well enough that the Coen Brothers (no slouches in meting out comedy and drama in equal measure themselves) tapped them for their latest farce, Hail Caesar!  Hill and Tatum are not brought in as a comedy duo, but as players in the Coen's usual sprawling ensemble.

Hail Caesar! follows Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, a studio "fixer" in the 1950's who keeps the stars in line.  His studio is undergoing their most expensive and expansive endeavour, a sprawling historical/religious epic, but its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by Communists days before the film's conclusion.  Mannix must juggle this crisis with an unexpected pregnancy from Scarlett Johansson's Ethel Merman-esque synchronized swim-film star DeeAnna Moran, and a studio mandate to change the image of its crooning cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into an all-around leading man, much to the chagrin of the studio's main artiste director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Feinnes).  Meanwhile, Mannix is entertaining an offer from Lockheed as an executive sales manager, but every incentive they offer seems less enticing.  He thrives under the pressure and believes in what he does.

The film sprawls around the studio, LA nightlife, film premiers and the oceanside home where the Communists are holding Baird.  There are many supporting players: the aforementioned Hill is featured as fall guy (the studio pays him to take the fall for a celebrity) as well as a certified accountant and all around professional; Tatum plays the studio's Fred Estaire-esque song and dance star (with a great cameo from Christopher Lambert as the director of his latest dancing sailor picture); Frances McDormand as the studio's tough-as-nails film editor; Tilda Swinton has dual roles as twin sisters writing gossip columns for competing papers; Dolph Lundgren as a Russian submarine captain; not to forget the gaggle of familiar faces as the group of communist screenwriters who've kidnapped Baird, and the counsel of religious elders the studio's called in to review the screenplay for their epic to ensure it's not going to offend anyone.

As much as the Coens may have had an actual story in mind for this, the real purpose seems to be giving the writer/directors the opportunity to shoot in earnest a synchronized swimming sequence, a singing cowboy by the moon, a song and dance number with sailors, and a huge 50's style epic that looks both fake and awe-inspiring equally all through the semi-ironic filter of looking at it all from the outside (the sequences are as real as anything from the era, but as viewers we're looking at them from Mannix's perspective, from "behind the scenes", which makes them humorously charming in their retro-ness, "oh the things that used to entertain us...").

There's a lot of star power here, but it's actually Ehrenreich that completely steals the picture.  He adopts the cocked smile and doe-eyed charm of Gene Autrey, with a thick southwestern twang that supposes naivety and dimness, but his simplistic speech betrays a rather smart and observant individual who basically saves the day for Mannix unexpectedly.  Given what's coming next, this is obviously his breakout role.  He manages that accent for both comedy, charm and sweetness, he sings, has a tough-yet-romantic charisma to appease the guys and the ladies (and vice versa), and even performs a number of stellar lassoing tricks that look effortless on his part.  It's is all part of an incredibly impressive, and noticeable performance.  After watching this movie, I honestly can see him as Han Solo.

And back to that tenuous tie (bet you thought it was Hill/Tatum, but no!), with Lord and Miller on board to direct the solo Han Solo Star Wars film and Ehrenreich in the title role (not to mention a script from Laurence Kasdan with some brush up from Lord and Miller) I've turned the corner from being completely against a solo Han Solo movie to being about 99% on board.  I'm always going to have some hesitation but I think they've absolutely cast the right actor and have found the exact right directors to make a funny, exciting, charming, romantic, swaggering, loveable nerf-herder of a movie.

And Ehrenreich has a distinctive mole under his lower lip, which, while not a scar on his chin, creates a defining characteristic that Han should have.  Just sayin', I think it works.