Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016); d. The Coen Brothers


That’s the official poster. Boring. I like this one much better.


In comparison to Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! has an outlook on humanity that is damn near sunny. Inside Llewyn Davis’ was a well-observed portrayal of the coffee-house folk-music scene pre-Dylan, suffused with an existential bleak mood. (I loved it.)

Hail, Caesar! is not exactly a “well-observed portrayal” of Hollywood post-WWII (a mix of the 40s and 50s). It’s not a documentary, although real people – or versions of them – predominate. It’s not a straight satire or a spoof either. It’s a bizarre mix of heart, corniness, and satire. It covers a lot of things familiar to people who know the history of Hollywood: how the big studios operated, including their patriarchal control over their stable of stars. The power of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, fearsome women wearing gigantic hats who made studio heads tremble. The screenwriters who went to Community Party meetings which then would come back and bite them in the ass during the Blacklist years. (In the Coens’ re-imagining of that dark era, those people made up a true Communist cell, taking their orders from the Soviets, sneaking Commie propaganda into Hollywood movies.) The kinds of movies made by certain studios, mass-entertainment, musicals and Biblical epics. Movies “we” may be ashamed of now (speaking generally), but which were the bread-and-butter of a different era.

But Hail, Caesar! does not approach its environment with cynicism. It’s not slick. It also doesn’t treat Hollywood with contempt, nor is it mean-spirited about an industry devoted to make-believe. It has an almost gentle view of all of the characters, one of the biggest surprises about it, as ridiculous as many of them are. Hollywood is made up of hard-working people who have weird useless gifts (lassoing, horse riding, swimming, dancing with bananas on your head) that have brought them an immense amount of luck and good fortune. There isn’t one Diva actor on the lot in the film. I appreciated that so much. In my experience working in theatre, Divas are rare. Divas stand out in your memory. For the most part, actors are hard workers, humble (they really want to please the director and do a good job, even the stars feel that way), and, yeah, somewhat silly, because who would have ever thought that an ability to twirl two guns into your two-sided holster could make you Box Office Gold? It’s insane, it’s play-acting, and actors feel very very fortunate if they get to the point where they can make a living at it at all. People who see actors as egotistical idiotic maniacs probably don’t know many of them personally. The Divas get all the press. The nose-to-the-grindstone people do their work and go home.

I’ve read that some people don’t find the film “laugh out loud funny,” but I laughed out loud throughout. Your mileage may vary.


George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a dim-witted good-hearted alcoholic/womanizer movie star who spends the entire movie in Roman dress with a Caesar haircut. As strange as this might be to believe, he barely looks attractive at times. It’s hilarious. At one point, Josh Brolin (who plays Eddie Mannix, head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures – based on the real-life Eddie Mannix – sort of) slaps Clooney across the face multiple times (there are a couple of 1940s movie-slaps in the film), and in between one of the slaps, Clooney stares up at Brolin in such horror and surprise that his mouth is open in a perfect circle, eyes bugged out of his head. I guffawed.


Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, an “aquatic” star along the lines of Esther Williams, but with throwbacks to the 1930s Busby Berkeley years, with grandiose synchronized swimming numbers, filmed from the ceiling, so human figures in the water start to look kaleidoscopic and abstract, creating different illusions.

The “By the Waterfall” number in Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film “Footlight Parade”. Those are human beings. Here’s the full clip:

Esther Williams, “Dangerous When Wet” (1953)

Johansson’s voice in Hail, Caesar! is a brassy sassy New York accent (perfection), reminiscent of Jean Harlow’s voice: the tough-girl, the working-class New York girl, nobody’s fool, a gun moll voice. The first time you see DeeAnna Moran, she rises from the surface of the pool, engulfed in a spout of water from a pretend-whale beneath the waves. Dressed in a skintight green mermaid outfit, she does a high-dive into the center of the synchronized swimmers, and then, once the cameras stop rolling, swims off, her tail flapping in the waves, annoyed because the damn thing is too tight. “Did you have gas again?” asks an assistant on set, and she scoffs, “Did I have gas again … come on.” Turns out DeeAnna Moran is pregnant, doesn’t know who the father is, although she thinks she might be sure, and Eddie Mannix has come to propose a quickie-marriage to an appropriate gentleman, just to avoid the scandal.

Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip-columnists named Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker, both based on Hedda Hopper. The hats Swinton wears, with deadly-looking feathers jutting off to the side, are not an exaggeration.

Hedda Hopper

Thora (or Thessaly) stalk after Eddie Mannix across the Capitol lawns, threatening to reveal sketchy stories from Whitlock’s past if she doesn’t get an exclusive. The sisters are in ferocious competition with one another for scoops.


Ralph Fiennes plays a director named, hilariously, Laurence Laurentz (and nobody in the film can get the stresses right on either of his names). Laurentz is an elegant man with a British accent who seems to make drawing-room comedies along the lines of William Wyler or a low-rent George Cukor, with a palatial set of a parlor, and a fancy-schmancy family sitting around having cocktails.

Hail Caesar 3

Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, the song-and-dance man star of the lot, modeled mostly on Gene Kelly, who brought a man-of-the-people athleticism to his dancing, so different from the elegant Fred Astaire. Comparisons are odious. They were two very different dancers. Gene Kelly dressed in sailor’s middies, or the classic khakis/jeans rolled up and loafers. Very different from tux and tails.

Vera Ellen and Gene Kelly, “On the Town” (1949)

Channing Tatum is not the dancer Gene Kelly was (who is?), but he’s charismatic, compelling, and yes, he can dance. Tap-dance, waltz, athletic leaps, fancy foot-work, the whole nine yards, he can do it. The first time we see Burt Gurney he is in a sort of On the Town type picture, shooting a frankly homoerotic number with a bunch of male soldiers in white sailors’ uniforms, bemoaning the fact (in song) that they have no dames. It ends with all of them dancing around with each other. I mean …


Burt Gurney is another humble star, eager to do his best. But Burt is more complex than meets the eye. Oh, Channing. How I love that I get to live in the moment where I get to watch this improbable and fearlessly-old-school entertaining career develop and take wing.


Josh Brolin, quickly becoming one of my favorite leading men/character actors (his performance in Inherent Vice is now a favorite), even though he’s been around forever, plays Eddie Mannix. Yes, he’s a tough-talking guy, strutting around keeping his artists in line. But he’s also so tormented by guilt he goes to confession once a day: Priest: “How long has it been since your last confession?” Eddie checks his watch. “18 hours, Father.” Tired sigh from the other side of the grille: “My son, that is too soon …” The touching part of this is that Eddie Mannix is not an overt sinner, no more than the rest of us. The biggest thing on his conscience is that he promised his wife he would quit smoking, and he snuck a few cigarettes and he feels genuinely bad about it. He is good at his job, but he is also being courted – heavily – by Lockheed, and Lockheed’s representative characterizes Eddie’s industry as silly, frivolous, a waste of time for such a talented man. If Eddie came to work for Lockheed, he would be set for life, in stock options, bonuses, salary, and he wouldn’t have to work until 11 o’clock at night. He wouldn’t miss his kid’s debut as shortstop on the baseball team. He wouldn’t think he was wasting his life in Make-Believe-Land. Mannix is torn. But he can’t stay torn for long, because he believes in the movies he’s making, he really does, and he also has to race around trying to find Baird Whitlock who has mysteriously disappeared from the set, calm down Laurence Laurentz, find a quickie husband for DeeAnna Moran, and a host of other problems that seem extremely urgent, absurd though they may be.

Brolin is extremely touching in this role. Very unexpected. Very well-written part.

And finally, because, for me, he is the big surprise of Hail, Caesar!, and one of the main reasons to see it (outside of the Coen Brothers, that is).


Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy star, who came out of the rodeo racket because of his horse skills, and found himself a movie star. With a real “brand.” I’ve seen him characterized as some hokey-Okie, but that could not be farther from the truth. Yes, his accent is thick-as-tobacco-chew. Yes, he wears chaps, and barely ever sets foot in the studio because “his” movies are filmed out in the desert. Yes, he has a kind of wide-eyed openness that seems “innocent.” But watch closely. And watch what Ehrenreich does. Again, it’s a very well-written part. This isn’t an element that Ehrenreich has added on his own. It’s there to begin with, and he brings it out with such deep-down gut-level understanding of who Hobie is, and not only that but more importantly: what the role requires in order to tell the story the Coen Brothers want to tell. This is what team-playing actor-craft looks like. It also is an example of genius casting. Honestly, watching this relative newcomer you are seeing a Master at work. (Supernatural fans will probably not recognize him from “Wendigo,” he was one of the kids. Another Supernatural alum is wonderful character actor Robert Picardo who played the evil leprechaun in “Clap Your Hands” and plays the rabbi here, called in by Mannix with a bunch of other theologians to weigh in on the portrayal of Jesus in the upcoming Biblical epic. Ricardo provides one of the first laughs in the film, referencing the other religious guys at the table: “These guys are screwballs.”)

Alden Ehrenreich is so good he almost takes over the movie (and he’s not even featured in the poster!). His quiet charisma, and his quiet take-over (you keep waiting for him to come back – not that the film lags when he’s not onscreen, but his presence is felt always) is good and right, because the character’s trajectory shows the absurdity of what can happen in Hollywood, the beautiful convergence of strange-ness mixed with desperate measures that can alter someone’s life forever. It shows what happens when a so-called rube gets in front of the camera. There’s a scene with Hobie that reminds me of John Garfield in Michael Curtiz’ Four Daughters (1938), a somewhat genteel family drama that John Garfield, as “bad boy outsider”, strolls into and walks away with because he makes everyone else seem like cardboard cutouts.

Our very first glimpse of John Garfield in “Four Daughters”. Hubba hubba.

Four Daughters was Garfield’s debut but you watch him (and he disappears halfway through) and think, “It is inevitable that that guy will become a huge star.” His performance pre-dates Brando by 10 years, but it predicts Brando. It opens up the way.

Watch, in Hail, Caesar! how Ehrenreich says the line, “It’s complicated.” He – and Hobie – KILL. IT.

Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes have one bit that is so funny I have no conception of how long it actually lasted, because I was laughing too hard. I’ll have to see it again to clock it. But it was so well done and so funny, on both sides, that I could have watched it for 5 minutes more.


There are surprises throughout. The adorable Veronica Osorio plays Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda-type, known for doing sexy dances with bananas balanced on her head. She and Hobie are set up for a date by the studio, and she accompanies him to the premiere of his new cowboy movie. They don’t know each other and what on earth could those two people have in common? But they have fun together, are both sweet, doing their best to be entertaining to one another, and also have a good time on this totally manufactured date, that they actually connect. It’s beautiful. Who knows, they might decide all on their own to go on a second date.


Frances McDormand has one killer scene. (Almost literally). She plays a chain-smoking film editor who hangs out in a dark room, splicing together the dailies, nearly setting the whole celluloid-filled room on fire, but flipping switches and cutting and re-rolling the film in an assembly-line automatic way that shows you this is all she does. All day. Every day.


Jonah Hill shows up as a notary, a go-to guy when the studio is in trouble and needs someone to 1. rush through divorce papers at the 11th hour 2. go to JAIL in some cases, “taking the fall” for a movie star in trouble 3. pose as a foster parent. Whatever. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Hill is so deadpan that he seems to be barely there, but that’s what’s so funny about it.

There is a “study group” of show-business Communists holed up in a house in Malibu, discussing the dialectics of history, economics, the “means of production” and how Hollywood plays into it. How they are involved in the story you’ll just have to find out for yourself.


Hail, Caesar! takes place in the space of a manic 24 hours; the timeline is compressed and urgent. Yet there’s an ease to the tone and rhythm overall. Scenes are allowed to breathe, behavior given space to flourish. It’s not manic for the sake of being manic. There’s a deliberate hand behind it (or … two pairs of hands), letting us get to know these people – not so much by seeing their hearts and minds – but by watching them work, watching them do what they are good at doing. Produce. Edit. Act. Swim. Write. Sing. Because that’s really all that matters to them.

I’ve quoted this Stella Adler gem before and it applies:

It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.

Every character onscreen is doing their thing, whatever it is, like Hercules.

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There have been a lot of lists “ranking” the Coen Brothers’ film. Ranking is not my thing. It creates a hierarchy of accomplishments as opposed to a sense of a still-unfolding career. What we are seeing – and have been seeing since the Coen Brothers arrived – is an extraordinary joint career developing over time, film after film after film, each one unique, some more successful than others … but that’s what Art is about. You don’t hit a home run every time you’re up at bat, and artists, even when doing their best, understand that better than most.

Hail, Caesar is not so much an homage to old Hollywood (although you can feel the directors’ love of those old forms, the Busby Berkeley stuff, the Gene Kelly stuff, the cowboy stuff) as a “spin” on some of those old familiar themes. The story reads as a “tall tale,” in a lot of respects. Show business is full of those. Read the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper, et al. They are creating the truth, and then that “truth” is passed on down. Hail, Caesar! has the feeling of gossip, passed down through the ages, clarity lost in the game of telephone. “Remember when Baird Whitlock was kidnapped? Did that actually happen that way?” “Remember Hobie’s first day of shooting that Laurentz picture? Were you there? I know someone who knew someone whose brother worked in the costume department, and he has some great stories.” “Remember DeeAnna Moran’s aquatic movies and what a huge a star she was? I wonder what ever happened to her …”

The film is not drenched in nostalgia, it’s too sharp for that. Its sharpness gives it its unique tone, both funny and fond, as well as its humor and absurdity. The pace never stops. The movies made at Capitol Pictures are made fun of – a little bit – but not entirely. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it is a condescending attitude towards films of the past, and the audiences who loved them. For example, in Hail, Caesar: you can totally understand why Hobie is a star when you watch him in a scene in one of his movies, sitting on the porch of a frontier shack, staring at the moon, strumming his guitar and singing. He’s riveting, and the scene is gentle, quiet, and archetypal in a way that is totally out of style now but you realize how essential it is, how difficult it is to achieve, when you watch it done really really well. You can understand why audiences would flock to see DeeAnna swim towards the camera in a mermaid dress, or Carlotta dancing around with fruit balanced on her head. If these people have one thing in common, it’s that they love what they do. Sugar-coated view of the industry? Not really. It’s closer to reality than you think.

Hail, Caesar‘s ultimate and unexpected gentleness means that you do not feel like you are spending two hours in the company of familiar stock types “play-acting” at being movie stars of a bygone age.

Instead, you feel privileged and grateful to get to hang out with that wacko sincere gang of hard-working screwballs.

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31 Responses to Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016); d. The Coen Brothers

  1. Jeff Gee says:

    Well, shit. Now my expectations are so unreasonably high that no matter how good it is, I’m screwed. This is a bitter disappointment. And I had such hopes.

    • sheila says:


      I avoided all reviews as much as I could – as well as buzz – because I was so looking forward to it myself that I just wanted to go in pure!

      It’s so much fun.

      Come back and talk once you’ve seen it. Even if you’re bitterly disappointed. :)

  2. Saw it Sunday, liked it but did not LOVE it, am still sorting it out b/c there’s so MUCH stuff to sort out. (It takes place over 27 hours, more or less, and each hour is packed to the gills for Eddie Mannix and everyone else.) So, I was thrilled to see you write about it, and you did not disappoint. I’m liking it more upon reflection, and I think you hit the nail on the head about it here:

    //They don’t know each other and what on earth could those two people have in common? But they have fun together, are both sweet, doing their best to be entertaining to one another, and also have a good time on this totally manufactured date, that they actually connect. It’s beautiful.//

    Ehrenreich IS wonderful, and the key to the whole movie. I loved, loved, loved him in Coppola’s TETRO–a beautiful movie, on a much more intimate scale, for which Ehrenreich is also the quiet center–and I’m so happy to see him having his moment. His character understands that everything about his career & the media around it is “totally manufactured,” BUT he also gets immense joy from doing what he does, and understands that his audience does, too. Movies, after all (including HAIL, CAESAR!), are completely manufactured… and yet they can completely overwhelm us emotionally and intellectually. There’s a reason the old Hollywood that the Coens depict here was called the “Dream Factory.” Yes, it’s thoroughly industrialized but that industry gives us fantasies that reflect our keenest longings, and even desires/dreams/absurdities that we didn’t even know we had.

    I experienced that feeling during the longish synchronized-swimming sequence with Scarlett Johannson. I’ve never been a Busby Berkeley fan, and never really understood the appeal of Esther Williams, but the luscious, unreal beauty of that sequence is astounding–even though the Coens are (at the same time) showing us how it is made. The same thing happens during the “No More Dames” dance sequence–and I confess that I had a huge shit-eating grin on my face for that WHOLE FIVE MINUTES. The Coens show it as work, as something manufactured, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also magical, too.

    But back to Ehrenreich. Hobie Doyle may seem like a rube but looks are deceiving. The Coens hone in on–perhaps a bit too much–how everyone is split, is divided between what they do and what they feel they should be doing instead. Despite looking like a simpleton, Hobie is probably the smartest person in the movie. He understands better than anyone else that he’s miscast in that Laurence Laurentz movie. (Lord, that scene b/w him and Ralph Fiennes almost made me pee my pants from laughing so hard.) He figures out the grand mystery–what happened to Baird Whitlock?–and saves the day. He understands that it was probably an extra that set the whole kidnapping in motion. He knows both that a scene he’s shot could be improved with another take. He gets what he’s good at, and what he’s not, in a way that’s not necessarily true of the other actors and directors we see. He understands that his whole career is a contrivance, and even casually says (as an aside) during his “date” with Carlotta Valdez that, when a reporter stops by the table, he made sure to mention the name of his new movie.

    He gets all this contrivance and manufacturing… but it’s still a source of great joy and sustenance to him. His contrived “date” turns into a real date; Carlotta and Bodie connect, and you get the strong impression that they’ll see each other again, without a gossip columnist present. The lasso tricks he does while waiting on her–man, that may be my favorite scene in the film. It’s all totally useless, from the perspective of a Lockheed man, but it’s so ebullient that it feels necessary to LIFE. Real longing emerges from the “industry.”

    That’s true in that lone, quick scene between Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill. The whole setup is a contrivance intended to avoid scandal but she digs him immediately–you understood quickly how she ended up with two ex-husbands and as an unwed mother-to-be, b/c she’s a little quick on the draw, relationship-wise. The manufactured desire becomes the real desire. Just like movies.

    Geez. I guess I liked HAIL, CAESAR more than I thought I did.

    • sheila says:

      Walter – your comment is so great, gives me a lot to think about!

      What was it about it you didn’t love on first viewing?

      // His character understands that everything about his career & the media around it is “totally manufactured,” BUT he also gets immense joy from doing what he does, and understands that his audience does, too. //

      Oh yes, that was the most charming thing about him – and it was so sincere! I loved how hard he tried to make that dad-blasted line come out right – and he was so polite and apologetic and willing that it ended up making Fiennes crazy – but he was so well-mannered. He really was just up there doing his best.

      And didn’t you so want to see the rest of that cowboy-moon movie? I know I did. Who was that hard-bitten blonde dame? What’s the cowboy’s story? It had such a beautiful still energy.

      // I confess that I had a huge shit-eating grin on my face for that WHOLE FIVE MINUTES. //

      I totally had the same experience. It was almost too much to take in all at once. I look forward to seeing it again.

      The lasso tricks – both with the rope – and with the spaghetti – were so effortless and beautiful – and … meaningless, really. In the best sense. Some things are just beautiful because they come so easily. It’s like watching a trapeze artist or something. It’s something you can’t do, it has no great meaning, but it brings profound joy and satisfaction – not just to the audience, but to the performer. I think “Hollywood” has really really lost that sense – where you get the sense that a lot of people take themselves very seriously and have Big Messages to impart. Now, that’s okay too – but not at the expense of the other. That’s why I love actors like Channing Tatum – or Zac Efron – or Justin Timberlake – who seem to be “playing the game” the way the old studio stars used to. They are not versatile actors, nor are they trying to be. They are not trying to “ugly up” so that they will be taken seriously. (Imagine Cary Grant doing that.) They work very very hard, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. Everyone in the industry likes them. You rarely hear a bad thing about any of them. This means they are careful with their image – they are SMART. They move through the world with a certain degree of ease – I think Idris Elba has this quality too – and things come easily to them, and you could so easily HATE them, but you don’t. They make you happy when they’re in something, or when they’re on late night talk shows – because they seem to see it as their duty to be entertaining. And that is no small thing.

      // but it’s so ebullient that it feels necessary to LIFE. Real longing emerges from the “industry.” //

      I love how you put that, Walter.

      // but she digs him immediately //

      YES. You totally got that. And it makes this weird insane sense somehow. hahaha

      Would love to hear more of your thoughts!

    • sheila says:

      And suddenly I can’t stop trying to say “Would that it twere that simple” and make it sound okay.

  3. Barb says:

    We went to see this as a family this weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did my 15-year-old, but my husband and younger son were less amused. My younger, not a huge movie fan, turned to me at one point and asked, “why did you bring me to this movie?” Afterward, his main criticism was that he didn’t know what the plot was. “It just went from movie scene to movie scene, and some of it was funny, but I didn’t understand what the story was supposed to be.” We talked it over, and decided that it was really a day in the life of the studio guy, Mannix, as he tries to fix all of the problems that confront him and to make his mind up about whether to stay in the circus or accept “normal life.”

    Aside from Hobie (Yes! He was so great!) and the scene in which all the religious guys start arguing definitions while all Mannix wants is a seal of approval on how the movie is depicting Christ, my favorite moment might be during Tatum’s dance scene when the bartender starts whipping the tablecloths off the tables as the sailors are dancing on them. That’s just picking one detail out of a buffet of great moments!

    I’m so glad you reviewed this, Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Barb – so glad you all saw it! Interesting to hear your son’s take.

      // We talked it over, and decided that it was really a day in the life of the studio guy, Mannix, as he tries to fix all of the problems that confront him and to make his mind up about whether to stay in the circus or accept “normal life.” //

      I think that’s pretty much it – there was a simplicity to it, even with all the crazy shenanigans and submarines and movie scenes … It was a day in the life. Book-ended by devout Catholic confessions. Strangely deep, I thought – because he actually was wrestling with something – but nothing huge like infidelity or covering up a murder – or even slapping a starlet on the face. :) It was that he lied to his wife about quitting smoking.

      I loved the scene with all the religious guys around the table and how when he asked for their religious input, the Patriarch said that chariot scene seemed “fakey.” hahahaha Like, I don’t need you to comment on the SCRIPT – I need you to tell me if Jesus is presented correctly!

      // when the bartender starts whipping the tablecloths off the tables as the sailors are dancing on them. //

      That was so cool!! And it was in long-shot for the most part – so you know that they were really doing those stunts. No cut-aways.

      Thanks for commenting! I really loved it!

      • Elliott says:

        Ah, but when Mannix got down to it with the priest, in the second confession, after the bit about the cigarettes, it was the job offer that was on his mind as a matter of right and wrong. People don’t always say what’s really bothering them right off the bat, and Mannix got to it after the priest expressed some fatigue at the cigarette-quitting discussion.

        The movie is about faith and belief in stories and about the responsibility that that faith puts in the hands of those that create stories, and it revolves around the choice Mannix is given by the Lockheed guy. The Lockheed guy is flat-out the devil, come with contempt for illusion to take the power out from behind the stories with reality: earth shattering bombs and bomber factories. In light of that interpretation, the most depraved scene in the movie was when Mannix put the Lockheed gifts by the beds of his sleeping children.

        • sheila says:

          Sure. I’ve confessed to a lot of really banal shit in confession before getting to the real shit. All of it matters. If it’s gnawing at your soul, whatever it is, that’s what confession is for.

          and yeah, Lockheed guy constantly offering cigarettes.:) “Come on, man, you know you want one.”

    • Natalie says:

      //his main criticism was that he didn’t know what the plot was. “It just went from movie scene to movie scene, and some of it was funny, but I didn’t understand what the story was supposed to be.”//

      I think that’s true of many, maybe most, Coen Bros. movies. The Big Lebowski comes to mind. It’s among my favorite movies, but I’d still be hard pressed to accurately describe what it’s about to someone who asked.

      “It’s about a stoner who has the same name as a millionaire, and some thugs pee on his rug because they think he’s the rich Lebowski, and he goes to the rich Lebowski to get his rug replaced, and ends up getting caught up in a kidnapping plot.”

      “Does he end up getting the rug replaced?”


      Doesn’t exactly do it justice. I think Coen movies are more about the journey (and characters) than the destination – and the journey is almost always going to be funny :-)

      I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It kept me guessing throughout, and not one of my guesses was correct. I think I loved the scene of Channing Tatum on the boat the most. There was something almost perversely heroic about his pose (not to mention the irony of him not helping to row the boat).

      • sheila says:

        // “Does he end up getting the rug replaced?”

        “No.” //


        Yeah, I agree with you. There’s something non-standard about their approach to Story, and at their best, it’s so much fun. And things do feel deeper the more you examine them …

        I think the best thing about their stuff is I never get the sense they’re phoning it in – or following anything other than their own star. To go from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “Hail Caesar” is awesome and – instead of a circus trick like “Look at our versatility” – it feels really personal. And I love that.

        Channing Tatum’s face as the rowboat approached the submarine was just glorious camp! He looked like one of those Soviet posters in the brutal-realist style, with happy inspired proletariats staring longingly at Lenin appearing in the clouds over their collective farm. Like, that’s exactly what he looked like.

        And the money sinking beneath the waves was hysterical!

        And good call on him not helping to row the boat. So much for Socialism – a pretty funny observation on how “stars” always emerge, even with the most drastic intellectual theories about the Nature of Man, and protecting the little guy, and all the rest.

        I really look forward to seeing it again!

  4. I’ll never forget my Russian NYU film professor telling us (with his heavy accent) “Actors are great people. They are crazy.”

    • sheila says:

      Ha. But even that’s not true. Depends on the definition of “crazy.” Half of my family are actors and a saner bunch you’ve never met in your life.

      • One of the things he would say about “crazy” actors was that they were willing to do just about anything you could come up with as a director or writer.
        “Harvey Keitel. Great actor. He is crazy. He will do anything.”
        He also really loved Steve Martin.

        • sheila says:

          One of the first rules of acting: Say “yes” to everything.

          You can always throw it out later.

          The only time acting teachers get really frustrated – or directors, for that matter – is when they have to deal with a reluctant or stiff actor who is afraid to at LEAST try things.

          Good actors are masters at that kind of stuff and instead of sneering at them as being bozos (which I see all the time, even in the film critic world) regular civilians could learn a lot from them.

  5. mutecypher says:

    This was so wonderful. I didn’t think any of the movies within the movies were winked at, they were all done at a “hey, that would be entertaining to watch the whole movie” level. I loved the swimming scene with Scarlett and the dancing with Channing, I hope you put something like that into your next screenplay. You did promise…

    I loved that Eddie Mannix chose to stay a studio executive. If there was a higher level of irony in the movie, it would be in having a studio executive with a conscience, and then him choosing to do the right thing – and having his choices work out in a reasonably beneficial way for everyone. It was the antithesis of The Player, in that regard. I really can’t see Tim Robbins’ Griffin Mill feeling any remorse for striking a movie star.

    And George Clooney getting slapped… He made such a great character that you could see him as a movie star, and a good-natured doofus, and a guy who could say “yes sir” after getting slapped. An excellent job.

    Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy scene – didn’t you want the stupid comedy relief prospector to just STFU so we could get his singing uninterrupted? Fracking Coens, making us want more, just so we would have extra love for Hobie. Ordering his pasta without sauce so he could show off his lassoing skills to his dates, that’s a man who understands his own charms. And as you said, his dialogue scene with Ralph Fiennes was a thing of wonder.

    I just had to get another dose of Coen Brothers before the Superbowl, so I watched The Big Lebowski… and darned if there wasn’t that great Busby Berkeley-style dance scene with the bowling girls.

    • sheila says:

      // I loved that Eddie Mannix chose to stay a studio executive. If there was a higher level of irony in the movie, it would be in having a studio executive with a conscience, and then him choosing to do the right thing //

      Good point! I loved, too, that he stayed. And he barely seemed tempted by Lockheed – and I loved that he talked to his wife about it too. The guy was a family man. It was subtle, but it was there. He cared about his daughter’s test and how worried she was about it, he missed his son’s game but wanted to make sure they talked to the coach … Again: these are little everyday details that make up the character in this so-called Make Believe Land in Hollywood – but Hollywood is just made up of people. Just like any other “company town”.

      // and a guy who could say “yes sir” after getting slapped. //

      HA! I know!! and then how suddenly he’s this breezy Communist (still dressed as a Centurion) – but he’s just parroting back what he heard and he totally doesn’t understand it. Ah, George. He’s so funny.

      // didn’t you want the stupid comedy relief prospector to just STFU so we could get his singing uninterrupted? //

      I know!!

      I loved the shot of the moon perfectly reflected in that horse trough. The whole scene was magical – interrupted by that Walter-Huston-ish shrieking.

      and yes! Big Lebowski: very Busby Berkeley!!

  6. Melanie says:

    //liked it but did not LOVE it//

    Yes, Walter, our initial reaction as well. My husband’s first response was, “Well that was underwhelming.” It’s kinda weird for me because as I read through your piece, Sheila, and all these comments I kept thinking, “Oh, yeah. I loved that scene or that bit.” Would that it there so simple… I felt a little like Barb’s son – one really great scene after another, but as a whole not as great as the sum of its parts if that makes sense.
    I’m pretty sure that for me the problem lies in the expectation. Clearly I would have been better off expecting less Blazing Saddles and more Big Lobowski. (Was it my imagination or was every portrait in the conference room with the religious leaders Mel Brooks?)

    //It’s not a straight satire or a spoof either. It’s a bizarre mix of heart, corniness, and satire//

    Of course you’ve got it on the nose and there’s not a single scene that I didn’t love, all the ones mentioned and more. One of those moments I loved was Baird Whitlock (I’m thinking Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston). Just when you’re thinking the stunt double from the brazier scene is probably good enough to finish the film, Baird starts that monologue to the tied up hero (sorry wrong thread) I mean moving speech at the foot of the cross and even the atheists and Jews on the crew are ready to kneel down and convert. Then BOOM! “Damn it! Why can’t I remember that line @$!#.” So funny.
    And you’re right it really brings the Hollywood magic and elitism down to earth. The product they put out is way up in the atmosphere, but these folks are just hard working people who are good at what they do, especially Eddie who’s so good Lockheed wants him to run their show.

    I also loved the character of Hobie maybe because they held him back in the previews so he was a surprise and then he ends up saving the day. I think you are right that this actor bears watching for great things to come. I also agree that I’m loving watching Channing Tatum’s career develop. Image of him standing on that sub with his dog while the money sinks. ROFL!

    This is a film that I will enjoy rewatching for years to come.

    • //I kept thinking, “Oh, yeah. I loved that scene or that bit.”//

      I think this is my core problem with HAIL, CAESAR. I really liked some of the individual scenes and bits but, to quote another Coen Bros. movie, it lacked a rug “that ties the whole room together.” It seemed like a highbrow late-1940s version of a sketch-comedy show (like SNL for Cahiers du Cinema readers) and less like a fully fleshed-out movie. We lose sight of Eddie Mannix too often, and for too long, for him to really be the lead or the character through which we understand everything. And some of the scenes don’t really cohere to me, and seem like indulgences: the Communist screenwriters’ meeting w/Baird goes on too long & isn’t that amusing; although it’s always nice to see Frances McDormand, that editing-room scene felt unnecessary (though funny); Tilda Swinton’s twin presence must’ve seemed HILARIOUS on the page but was tiresome (to me) onscreen, though I liked her hats.

      But, again, I like the movie the more I think about it. One thing I especially like is that Eddie decides to stay with the “frivolous” movies instead of work for Lockheed. The latter job would have been more secure, “respectable,” and all-American… but it also would’ve involved creating machinery that kills people and foments war, instead of creating dreams and entertaining people. And Eddie’s very happy being a cog in the great movie machine rather than a star. Despite himself, maybe he’s got a little socialist in him after all. Maybe the Coens do, too.

      • sheila says:

        Walter – your last paragraph really made me smile. Those are some very good points, and something I will enjoy thinking about when I see it again.

        Entertainment DOES help people.

        I also liked that Eddie Mannix was not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – or a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He was a man. That’s all. He was slightly embarrassed when his wife called in the middle of a business meeting – but he took the time to listen to her side of the baseball-team story, give a tiny bit of advice/support – and then murmur, embarrassedly, “I love you” as he hangs up.

        I thought that small symphony of behavior was SO eloquent – like, it told everything. I know guys like that and I’m sure we all do. He was devoted to his wife and kids – didn’t see them nearly enough – tried to do right by them – sharing with his wife the offer from Lockheed – he wasn’t all holed up in a defensive “This is my decision only” thing. Like, this feels much more “real” than the normal condescending current-day portrayal of men in the 40s and 50s as Pillars of Blind Privilege who ran rough-shod over everyone, arrogant and self-contained. (I felt the same way about the men in “Carol” – which I’m not sure if you saw, Walter. I read some silly – to me – commentary on Twitter – about how the men felt too “modern” – and I was like, “How do you even measure that? Did you live in the 40s? What exactly are you basing your opinion on – or is it just the snotty 21st-century attitude that your generation INVENTED complexity?” It was frustrating. I get it: things were “different” back then – for SURE – but honestly, not all THAT much. People were still human beings, for God’s sake. And men are trapped by “patriarchy” too. Because who wants to walk around being “lord and master”? I thought Kyle Chandler in “Carol” was a perfect example of that – the fragility of what happens to people when they submit to rigid societal roles.

        I agree that Frances’ scene was somewhat unnecessary (although I am always happy to see her – AND happy to see the acknowledgement that so many women were film editors back in those days – banned from being directors or producers and all the rest).

        I thought the Communist scene went on too long too but the detail in it saved it (the tiny squares of sandwiches on toothpicks, held by Baird as he listens to the dialectics lecture, not understanding one word of it – the grumpy guy who kept shouting inflammatory comments from the back with everyone trying to shut him down – the almost creepy smiles they all had because they had figured everything out) … With such a serious topic as the Blacklists – I think the Coens took a pretty radical view. Maybe even ahistorical – OR taking the view of the Blacklisters (like Hedda Hopper, coincidentally) – that the Communists WERE as big a threat as the mass-hallucination seemed to suggest. (Elia Kazan sure wrote about it in his memoir. Way back in the Group Theatre days – expressly political and Socialist – there were dictates from local Communist Party members about how to make this or that propaganda point come across – Kazan (an unreliable narrator, although an entertaining one) – says he felt that it was a sinister development. Who are you Russian bozos to tell us – Americans – and ARTISTS – how to do our art? Maybe Kazan was a liar. He is a liar. But other artists have said similar things – the pressure to conform to a certain mindset and viewpoint – the resistance to criticizing Russia, even after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 … which is – in my opinion – a shameful spot in the history of the American Left.

        I don’t know – this is stuff I’m still thinking about – the view of that Communist cell, and how unpopular it might be in certain circles. And what are they spoofing there? They seem to be spoofing everything. An un-intellectual actor who becomes the unwitting dupe of special-interest groups who need a spokesman. The idiocy of the Communist arguments, especially considering what would happen to all that glorious Utopian socialism in the following 40 years … the complacency of those guys sitting in that house. Maybe too the idea that Art IS propaganda – but it’s emotional/sexual/dream-like propaganda having to do with dreams and aspirations and sex and pleasure – and we all know how well “message-y” films come across. (Not well at all.) Films that are designed to put across a certain message that makes the liberals in the audience feel conscientious, self-satisfied, on the “right” side … not only are often insufferable but date really really badly. You can pop in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at any time and they will delight and charm and provide escape, and all the rest.

        Back to Communism and what the Coens were actually spoofing: Ultimately I think they were making fun of Communism. The ridiculous scene of Channing Tatum standing up in the boat, like Washington crossing the Delaware – and he looks like one of those social-realism posters of the Soviet era, a hearty farm boy, staring into the sunset with a Utopian Slavic gleam on his face. I mean, that guy is a DUPE. He does “walk the walk” but isn’t he just being used by those intellectual bozos and their Soviet counterparts? And he doesn’t even realize he’s being used? (That’s what Kazan describes in his book: the pressure to make art conform to the propaganda that the Soviet Union wanted to put out about itself. And many seemed to not realize that they were being used – by a group far more cynical than anyone wanted to accept.)

        I may be over-thinking the Communist part of it, but I don’t think so. It’s such a painful episode in Hollywood history – the most painful, actually – and the Coen Brothers treated it comedically – but also in a way that says (at least to me): “The hysteria wasn’t TOTALLY unwarranted. I mean, here’s a Communist Cell kidnapping a movie star. Here’s a Soviet submarine rising up off the coast of Malibu.”

        Of course, it’s all also just a joke. But there’s some deep interconnectivity going on there – comments being made and then redacted – but it’s all around this event in Hollywood history where the wounds haven’t even begun to be healed. (I remember the shot of Amy Madigan refusing to stand up and clap for Elia Kazan when he got his Lifetime Achievement Oscar. I mean, really, Amy? Really?)

        • I don’t think you’re overthinking it; there’s a lot to unpack in HAIL, CAESAR, and that’s why I’m so ambivalent about it. I don’t believe that ambivalence is categorically bad, btw; I have mixed feelings about MOST of my favorite works of art.

          I really like your attention to Eddie Mannix’s minor behavior. He’s a devoted husband and father, he’s good at his job, but he’s in a dilemma about whether what he’s good at is worth doing in the first place. And I think every working adult has had a version of that struggle, which is why it’s poignant. He’s not all good but the Coens never treat him–or, really, most of the movie’s men–as less than human. (Side note: The tendency to simplify and caricature men of the past is part of why I gave up on MAD MEN after season 3. The gender roles all seemed so pre-determined, like the filmmakers and actors were constantly projecting, “Look how crazy and sexist people were back then, and my goodness we’re so much better than that, now!” It’s the idea that, as you said, our generation thinks we invented complexity.” The Coens–who have, it should be said, based a LOT of their movies in the past–tend to complicate all those notions in fruitful ways.) I haven’t seen CAROL yet–I’m hit or miss on Todd Haynes–but I’m always interested in how he plays around with our gender expectations. Anyway, yes, Mannix doesn’t seem to conform to our 21st-century image of the Patriarchal Man–an image that was partly promulgated, of course, by Hollywood movies. All of the men (and women, to a slightly lesser degree) in HAIL CAESAR “perform” gender offscreen differently than when they’re in front of the lights and cameras. That may be worth an essay on its own.

          Anyway, Communists: Yes, it seems to be anti-communist–which is fine–but its anti-communism seems somewhat ahistorical and buffoonish. This is a touchy subject, and I don’t think the Coens handled it that well, in part because they lampoon it from every direction, instead of choosing a course of attack. The communists here THINK they’ve figured everything out but they can’t even agree in their “study group” meetings; they’re always talking over each other; and they only get their shit together when 1) they glom onto a European professor who encourages “direct action”, and 2) they find a rich Hollywood star (Burt Gurney) to run things for them. Then they make Burt drop the ransom money in the ocean. And what about that? Did you think that was an accident? I don’t. I think Burt was maybe getting played by the Soviets but he’s smarter than I think you give him credit for. He’s leaving for Russia, and sure he’s got an inflated ego (I love your comment about that boat ride being a parody of Washington on the Hudson; I didn’t see that till you said it, and now I can’t un-see it!). But he flees just before he’s gonna get outed (ha!) as a Communist, and it ends up being the bumbling sycophant screenwriters who get caught by the police at his house. They would’ve been caught with Burt’s $100,000 “donation”, which would’ve been evidence, except that they bungled it. My point is: Maybe Burt was setting them up for a fall, even if he is being used by the Soviets.

          Besides, I laughed at the screenwriters’ “big” victory: They got ONE relatively obscure plot point in a picture, which probably would’ve been understood only by viewers already sympathetic to communism in the first place. So how effective are they in the first place? Their egos are bigger than their achievements, just like Baird Whitlock. And Baird’s not THAT dumb–he understood immediately, during the “study group” session, that he could’ve turned them all in for subversion, without fear of getting hurt. It’s just that he had a scandal hanging over him that prevented him from doing just that.

          Either way, Kazan’s a lying liar, and hardly to be trusted on that issue. (I remember that Ed Harris refused to stand or clap, too.) Kazan’s a great filmmaker, though. And that’s kinda the crackpot point I think the Coens are making: That all these nutjobs, weirdos, political naifs, and buffoons can nevertheless COME TOGETHER (almost, you know, like socialists) to make great art.

          • sheila says:


            Yeah, it was all coming so fast I couldn’t quite latch onto a lot of it. I think that’s a strength of the movie – not a weakness – but I definitely need to think about it more AND see it again.

            // That all these nutjobs, weirdos, political naifs, and buffoons can nevertheless COME TOGETHER (almost, you know, like socialists) to make great art. //

            Yeah, I like that.

            // They got ONE relatively obscure plot point in a picture, which probably would’ve been understood only by viewers already sympathetic to communism in the first place. //

            Ha! Yeah, really.

            // Maybe Burt was setting them up for a fall, even if he is being used by the Soviets. //

            Interesting – I need to watch Channing’s performance again. I tend to get slightly distracted by him, in general. Which is a good thing, but I know there was a lot there more.

            Plus I liked the seriousness somehow (even with the ridiculous-ness of the crucifixion crosses and the Biblical epic) of Mannix’s religion – and the way religion seemed to be treated – even though he was compulsive about it. I didn’t see those confession scenes as lampooning his desire to make things right on a 12-hour basis. Something in him really wanted to be honest. Or maybe actually he WAS so fortunate (not just economically – although I loved that his house seemed to be quite modest) – that he felt he needed to atone for it somehow, which is quite a Catholic thing to do.

            Hence: his sincere agony about the smoking and the little lies he told his wife about it.

            I’ll try to see it again and see what else I pick up on.

    • sheila says:

      I feel the expectation thing too with my favorites (the main one being Paul Thomas Anderson – Walter, you and I have discussed him!)

      That’s why I have to see any PTA film multiple times because only then can I get rid of that expectation thing – which makes me mis-trust my own reactions (and rightly so). I think that’s true of any critic. We’re not robots. We have our favorites. (Pauline Kael with Bertolucci and DePalma comes to mind.)

      But the expectation is not as strong as the sense I get – with the Coen Brothers – as well as with PTA – that the career is still in the process of unfolding. And how exciting is that. Let’s just trust them and follow them – and then decide what we think afterwards. We are lucky that we’re living in the time that these guys are making films! Each film is another entry in an ongoing body of work – careers are chaotic, rarely planned to perfection. And the feeling – from film critics especially – that every film is some part of some Legacy being built … well, that just shows how film critics think, not how artists think. I mean, how many artists go wrong when they start worrying about their “Legacy”?? I was just talking with my friend Mitchell yesterday about Robert DeNiro – and I am so ANNOYED with film critics who pooh-pooh his comedic stuff – and keep wanting him to “get back” to the kinds of roles he did in the 70s. Film critics don’t understand how actors work and they don’t understand how actors think. They are so (in general) brainwashed by the “auteur theory” that they extend it to actors. It is such a ridiculous mis-understanding of how ACTORS understand their craft. (That’s why I love the attitude of Hail Caesar towards actors: it’s actually quite realistic.) Do these critics honestly think Robert De Niro is trying to “craft a legacy” – as opposed to just wanting to work, because he’s an actor, and that’s what he does? How does a comedy “ruin” his legacy? Even a bad movie doesn’t “ruin” jack-squat, because movies are a crap-shoot and you can’t win them all. Actors understand this better than anyone. It’s like these people wish Robert De Niro had stopped making movies in 1981, just to preserve his “legacy.” Everyone keeps hoping he’ll make another Taxi Driver again – but I think that would be embarrassing, and a looking-backwards as opposed to looking-forwards. Also: De Niro is FUNNY. Organically naturally funny. I love him in comedic stuff. Acting should be fun – it doesn’t just have to be a torment – and I love seeing De Niro having fun.

      This is like Tennessee Williams saying that the critics who kept wanting him to write “Streetcar” over and over again – were hurtful and baffling to him, because Streetcar was a young man’s play – and of course he wouldn’t write the same thing when he was in his 50s or 60s. He already DID Streetcar. Why would he do it AGAIN? It was this “expectation” thing that contributed to the downfall of Williams in terms of critical perception – but the critics, in retrospect, were all WRONG. They rejected “Camino Real” (a great play) – so much so that it frightened Williams and he went back to trying to re-create what he had done in the first stages of his career. But “Camino Real” is not only revelatory – but prophetic of the independent theatre scene that would blossom a full decade later with playwrights like Lanford Wilson and John Guare.

      Anyway. This is the kind of thing that I struggle with professionally – that’s for sure. Manage my expectations. Go into stuff as pure as I can. Not every film is meant to be a slot in some overall Legacy. These people are working artists, doing projects that please them at a time before moving onto the next thing.

      The Coen Brothers’ stuff is so diverse! (Unlike, say, Tarantino. I love Tarantino. This is not a ‘diss. Art is not “either/or.”) So there’s The Big Lebowski, Inside Llewyn Davis, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There (which I LOVED) and then Burn After Reading (what?) and O Brother Where Art Thou? (what??), plus Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing … the whole thing is mind-boggling. It’s akin to Woody Allen’s output (although Woody Allen, for better or worse – literally, he doesn’t care, he’s a workaholic – is more prolific.) I imagine the fans of Coen Brothers films fall into respective buckets – some like the comedies, some like the bleak existential shit.

      // even the atheists and Jews on the crew are ready to kneel down and convert. //

      That was hilarious.

      // they held him back in the previews so he was a surprise and then he ends up saving the day. //

      I know!! He’s an unknown to mainstream audiences, although he’s been working for about 10 years … so it was so great to discover him, AND that he wasn’t just a side part, one of the ensemble, but (in many ways) the key to the whole thing.

      I love it when directors show bold-ness in casting like that piece of casting.

      His lasso-work while waiting for Carlotta to come out of the house …

      Magic. So peaceful. A skill and a grace unconnected to any meaning or ambition or even purpose … beauty for the sake of beauty.

  7. Melanie says:

    //Would that it there so simple… //

    Damn autocorrect! Spoiling the best line in the film. **twere** Yes, you stupid autocorrect, that is exactly what I meant to type! I think it’s like the thing (skynet?) in Terminator that develops a deadly consciousness. Beware autocorrect is trying to take over the world…

  8. Melanie says:

    //twin-sister gossip-columnists named Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker, both based on Hedda Hopper//

    With a little bit of the Dear Abby/Anne Landers twin sibling rivalry thrown in…

  9. Melissa Sutherland says:

    So funny. Read this yesterday. Couldn’t wait. Saw it late tonight in the freezing cold. Just me and one young couple, only people there. This is Keene, NH at the 9:15 showing, after all. On Primary night. Anyway, they walked out after about 20 minutes. I kept waiting to feel the way I did when I read your piece. Liked it/didn’t love it. Then I came home and read your piece again and LOVED it all over again. How does this happen? It seems to have happened to a bunch of us who read you. You, by sheer force of will, MADE us love it! I swear that’s true. Somehow, seeing it through your eyes made me just fall in love with the movie. Something that didn’t happen when I was watching it. Magical. Thank you for making me fall in love with it.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – Ha!!

      Well, that’s a compliment, and I thank you.

      I’ve definitely read pieces by other writers where I go, “Okay. Clearly I need to re-visit that.” (Especially if I trust the writer. I don’t trust many writers.)

      Stephanie Zacharek’s TWO pieces on “John Wick” made me think, “Sheila. For some reason, you skipped that movie. Rectify it immediately.”

      I did – and I LOVE that movie. I thank her for those two pieces of writing!

  10. Desirae says:

    Ah, I’m so glad to hear this one is good. The reviews have been mixed but I generally ignore them anyway. I skimmed through the comments here real quick because I don’t want to spoil myself.

    • sheila says:

      Yes: I agree to ignore reviews. Coming as a film critic, that may seem insane. But I ignore them too. As much as I can. At least until I’ve seen it.

      Glenn Kenny’s review on Roger Ebert is excellent. (For after you’ve seen it.)

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