It’s true they are not to all tastes, but, for my money, films like Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis are among the most brilliantly inspired and enjoyable in modern American cinema. So much so, in fact, that I find a new film from the weird and witty siblings a slight cause of trepidation – will it live up to my unreasonably high expectations (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers certainly didn’t)?
Thankfully, Hail, Caesar! is no cause for disappointment. This is the Coens on full-tilt fun mode. They tend to alternate screwball comic fare like Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? with more serious stuff like No Country for Old Men or Llewyn Davis, and this definitely falls into the former camp.
The film tracks a day in the life of Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (a fine Josh Brolin), at the height of the studio star system in 50’s tinseltown. Eddie is a serious man, weighed down by the demands of his job. He is the stoic centre of a swirling cyclone of idiots, egos, spiralling budgets and potential PR nightmares – his job is to keep Capitol Pictures’ moviemaking on schedule, keep the talent in line and to make sure the public face of the studio, and its stars, is kept as far from the debauched truth as possible in favour of a good, honest, American apple pie image. He is, he truly believes, in the serious business of building cinematic dreams and wonders for Joe Public.
He’s not having a great day, though. The puffed up star of biblical sword and sandals epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of The Christ, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, clearly relishing his latest chance to play a complete fool for the Coen brothers) has been kidnapped and ransomed by parties unknown. Meanwhile, Eddie’s attention is torn between numerous other headaches - a starlet who can no longer fit into her mermaid suit thanks to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a cowboy movie star who has trouble talking, and meeting with argumentative holy men to ensure Hail, Caesar! is a sensitive depiction of Jesus (“this swell figure from the east”, as Eddie calls him) that won’t offend the public – not to mention a job offer he’s finding hard to turn down.
The story, it must be said, is the weakest part of the whole thing. At no point does it feel like a cohesive and driving narrative, and nor does it to amount to very much by the time the end credits roll – but, with the strength of material here, it doesn’t really need to. This is a freewheeling shaggy dog story, an excuse to string together a series of scenes illustrating various facets of classic Hollywood at its most joyously crackpot.
And what scenes they are. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully captures the look of old-school Hollywood movies with several film scenes within the film - an aquatic dance number, a wonderfully fun tap dancing routine (whoever thought Channing Tatum had it in him?), the folksy tweeness of musical cowboy flick ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ and the wonderful pomposity of the main movie, Hail Caesar! itself (“squint against the grandeur!” Whitlock is told by his director as he comes face to face with Christ).
One superbly funny sequence has cowboy star Hobie Doyle, out of his comfort zone and plunged into a drawing room melodrama movie by the studio, tortuously wrestling with dialogue suggested by mannered director Lawrence Larenz (Ralph Fiennes, on sublime comic form). In fact, the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, as Hobie, comes close to stealing the film from the stellar cast, bringing real charm and soulfulness to what could have been just another Coenesque bozo.
Then there is a slew of well-judged cameos, including the peerless Tilda Swinton as twin sisters who are also rival gossip columnists and Frances McDormand as a film editor who makes a seriously unwise sartorial choice that day. It feels like any number of the characters here could be at the centre of a film all to themselves – a great feat with such a big ensemble, the only frustration being that you are left craving more screen time for one or two of them.
Hail, Caesar! is fast, funny and wonderfully entertaining – a well-seasoned blend of sly wit and silliness. To repeat the caveat mentioned earlier, if you are not a convert to the Coens, this probably won’t persuade you - not everyone cares for their low-key, arch sense of humour. But, if you are a fan, or have the slightest affection for the golden age of Hollywood, there is an awful to love about this delightfully deranged romp through a bygone age of moviemaking.