Michael Moore and the Coen Brothers serve up laughs


Two lighthearted films play at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore’s latest documentary, takes a mellower turn for this provocateur. In “Hail, Caesar!” the Coen Brothers send up and celebrate the excesses and charms of Fifties Hollywood.

In “Where to Invade Next,” a shambling Mr. Moore opens by pretending to question why the U.S. has lost so many wars, and suggesting the Joint Chiefs of Staff have asked him to investigate. Like George Washington crossing the Delaware, he sets off brandishing an American flag to determine where we should invade next.

In France, he finds schoolchildren enjoying gourmet lunches and enlightened sex education. Finland, with one of the world’s best education systems, has shorter hours, no homework, and no standardized tests. Slovenia offers tuition-free higher education and welcomes foreign students. Moving on to Italy, Moore learns workers enjoy up to eight weeks of paid vacation. In each case, the doughty Moore plants an American flag in a tongue-in-cheek invasion. Much of what he uncovers had its origin in the U.S., he suggests, but has met more success abroad.

When he arrives in Germany, he learns that rather than burying a past of Nazism and the Holocaust, this country confronts its wrongs openly with statues and other memorials. He contrasts this approach with the U.S., where extermination of Native Americans and African-American slavery stay on the back burner. The film’s strongest indictment of American failings examines the pattern of modern “slavery” that imprisons high numbers of African-American men for relatively minor drug offenses. Norway’s penal system illustrates a far less punitive approach than found in the U.S., and Portugal, Moore finds, has decriminalized drug use. Morocco, despite all its Muslim strictures on women, provides them with free health care. Moore’s final visit is to Iceland, where he discovers the bankers responsible for the country’s economic crisis have been jailed. Women run the one bank that didn’t go belly-up, and Moore interviews a group of the country’s strong female leaders.

“Where to Invade Next” hop-skips around Europe (Morocco is the exception) in a random pattern, but the visits are entertaining and often insightful.

A Hollywood spoof

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” takes its title from a “Ben Hur”-like biblical epic in production at a Hollywood studio. It’s the 1950s, at the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age, just before TV took over. The movie stars George Clooney as doofus superstar Baird Whitney. No — it stars Josh Brolin, playing studio fixer Eddie Mannix, fashioned after a real-life fixer of the same name. And could it be Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy à la Gene Autry, performing tricks on horseback and talking in a Western twang? Or Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnne Moran, doing an Esther Williams turn squeezed into a mermaid suit?

“Hail, Caesar!” is more about a parade of today’s actors parodying yesteryear’s stars than it is about its threadbare plotting, most of which fizzles out before the end. The initial setup finds earnest Eddie, a devout Catholic, in the confession box, admitting he lied to his wife about quitting smoking. Later, he agonizes about whether to jump ship from Capitol Studios to join Boeing. Gags line up like bowling pins. DeeAnne performs an aquatic ballet equal to any Busby Berkeley choreography. Because DeeAnne’s about to have an out-of-wedlock child, Eddie gets his publicist (a deadpan Jonah Hill) to cook up a cover story that alludes to Loretta Young. Decked out in his Roman centurion gear, Baird is kidnapped by a bunch of screenwriters who have joined the Communist Party and want their fair share of Capitol Studio’s capital. Waking up in spectacular Malibu digs, Baird finds he likes the Commies.

Enter Hobie, miscast as the romantic lead in “Merrily We Dance,” directed by Laurence Laurenz (Ralph Fiennes). Hobie tries to wrap his cowboy accent around the dialogue. Hilariously hatted Tilda Swinton lurks on the studio lot as twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, hot on the trail of a salacious scoop. Frances McDormand puts in a cameo playing a chain-smoking film editor with a moviola run amok. The pièce de résistance, however, is Channing Tatum in a sailor suit tap-dancing in a homoerotic number, “No Dames,” that leaves Gene Kelly in the dust.

Cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans will have a field day watching the ever-allusive “Hail, Caesar!” but ordinary filmgoers, for whom the Coen Brothers might be an acquired taste, will find themselves scratching their heads at the goofy antics.