Only the Coen brothers would make a film about the golden age of Hollywood that feels like both a tribute and a send-up at the same time.
The writing/directing duo tend to earn most of their accolades for serious fare like No Country For Old Men and True Grit, but nothing displays their layered writing and subversive wit like their (dark) comedies – Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading, for instance.
Hail, Caesar! sees the filmmakers turn their lens towards their own industry’s past, twisting nostalgia and reality into one gorgeously-presented package.
The film is set in the 1950s and populated with a glitzy line-up of today’s stars playing versions of yesterday’s stars, and yet ironically, the real hero (to use the term very loosely) is a man who works behind the scenes.
As a metaphor of that time, when studio-backed escapist movies served as a distraction for an America plagued with fears of the Cold War and Communism, it is both clever and spot-on.
It tells the fictionalised tale of one day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood “fixer” with a major studio whose job is to cover up the scandals and bad behaviour of its stars (the real-life Eddie Mannix worked for MGM Studios).
When the star of their biggest production, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is mysteriously abducted, Mannix has to retrieve him before the news hits the gossip columns.
This is far from being Mannix’s only problem, however; among his more pressing concerns are a pregnant but unmarried starlet (Scarlett Johansson) and a pleasant but rough-around-the-edges Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who needs to be polished into a “real” actor.
Hail, Caesar! is more frothy and fun than the Coens are apt to be, and the overall impression is of a great partially-formed idea that never fully comes to fruition. While the story sets up one heck of a premise, it meanders on its way to resolving its various plot lines, making the movie feel draggy and aimless at times.
The big reveal at the end, meanwhile, is somehow both too flat and too zany, with much of its initial subtlety expanding into the obvious – almost as if the filmmakers just tacked on a suitably Coenesque finale.
The delicious cast of characters, however, nearly makes up for this, with actor after actor delivering performances that perfectly straddle the line between realism and satire. Top on the list is Brolin, who is perfect as the ruthless, tough-as-nails and yet somehow extremely likable Mannix, the straight man to the madness unfolding around him.
Add to this Clooney’s grandiose but dim-witted leading man, Ralph Fiennes as a “serious” director, Tilda Swinton playing twin rival gossip columnists, and Channing Tatum in yet another tongue-in-cheek performance, and there’s hardly time to enjoy one appearance before the next.
Stuffed with nods to classic Hollywood filmmaking, the movie will delight most cinephiles with its attention to detail as we drop in on set piece after set piece over the course of Mannix’s day.
Besides the lavish trappings of Whitlock’s Roman epic – the titular Hail, Caesar! -– we’re treated to a glorious aquatic number with Johansson dressed as a mermaid (harking back to “aquamusical” star Esther Williams), a Western complete with Ehrenreich as a somersaulting, lassoing cowboy, and a tap-dancing bunch of sailors led by a Gene Kelly-esque Tatum.
Delve beneath the glittery surface, though, and hints of the murky depth begin to show – the kind of stuff the Coens do so well. For all that Hail, Caesar! revels in nostalgia, it also tears down the artifice of it, revealing how Hollywood is, in fact, more the product of people like Mannix than the stars who front it.
Classic Coen brothers, really. Just maybe not their best.
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen