Title: Hail, Caesar!
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Major Players: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson
Out Of Five: 3.5
I may be guilty of overthinking this but, having found a companion piece for 99 Homes in the shape of The Big Short, I think I’ve done the same for Trumbo. This time, it’s the latest from the Coen Brothers. Hail, Caesar!
I should add that I’m a huge Coen fan. That doesn’t mean I love absolutely everything they do, but I have fond memories of bunking off work one afternoon to see their very first movie, Blood Simple – the one and only time I’ve ever skived off to see a film – and No Country For Old Men is one of the few films I’ve ever seen more than once at the cinema. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it since on the TV.
For this one, Joel and Ethan are in gleefully playful mood and have produced a film for lovers of Hollywood nostalgia and yet another one set in the 50s. Inevitably, the communists put in an appearance as well. See what I mean about Trumbo? The difference here is that it’s a comedy tinged with satire and made with huge affection, nay relish, for its period.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the Mr Fixit at Capitol Pictures in 50s Hollywood. Pregnant but unmarried actresses, actors with drink/drug problems, either in or out of re-hab – they’re all in a day’s work. On this particular day, there’s a pregnant actress but, more importantly, the studio’s biggest leading man and star of an up-coming epic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has apparently been kidnapped and the captors are demanding a ransom.
The Coens and their right-hand man, British cinematographer Roger Deakins, have given us a glorious re-creation of 50s Hollywood, with the various films-within-the-film and the long, panoramic shots of the studio lot. Its look is nigh-on perfect and tinged with nostalgia yet there’s the lingering thought that the movie, just like the industry it portrays, is all about appearances and that underneath there’s not a great deal more.
And, indeed, the plot is almost silly at times, more of a daffy 30s comedy than one from the 50s. Yet it hardly matters, because you’re lapping up the look of the film and trying to recognise all the films referenced in the movie. Hollywood loves seeing itself on screen and it’s looking at itself in a large mirror here, because the nods to other films simply overflow. The Hail, Caesar! of the title is Ben Hur. Channing Tatum’s sailor suited song ‘n’ dance routine echoes Gene Kelly and On The Town. Scarlett Johansson’s water scene is Busby Berkley meets Esther Williams, with some Singin’ In The Rain thrown in: she doesn’t speak in her movie scene and it’s just as well, as her voice is a rasping broad Brooklyn. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a cross between Roy Rogers and Audie Murphy. Away from the fictional films, there’s Tilda Swinton as gossip columnist twin sisters – Hedda and Hopper, if you like. Even Brolin’s Mannix is based on a real person.
And that’s one of the reasons for watching. All those references make you smile and some of the characters do genuinely make you laugh, especially Clooney’s dim-witted superstar. It’s good to see him back doing comedy – and even better to see Ralph Fiennes doing it again, this time as a director making a romantic drama and struggling with having Hobie Doyle as his leading man: usually cast in cowboy roles, he’s ill-at-ease with this style of movie. Yet, when we see the rushes, it becomes obvious that despite his limitations as an actor, he can deliver – as long as he has the right script and director. Rather like one of his co-stars, Channing Tatum, who genuinely learnt to tap dance for his big scene and sings as well. As we saw in Foxcatcher last year, given the right director and the right part, there’s much more to him than slushy rom-coms. No potato he, Danny Leigh!
There’s a couple of scenes that deliver knock-out comedy punches. Ralph Fiennes as suave director Laurence Laurenz trying to coach Hobie to say one single line is the highlight of the film. It’s fast, wickedly funny and both actors are right on the button, both physically and verbally. For something more satirical, there’s the moment when Mannix brings together a rabbi, Catholic priest, Orthodox priest and Protestant padre to make sure that the references to God and Christ in the epic won’t offend anybody. It all becomes a gleefully hilarious tangled mess, mainly thanks to the rabbi. And watch out for the reference to it in the end credits!
Hail, Caesar! is a film lover’s film and it certainly helps to have seen movies from the 50s. But it’s also very much for the Coen Brothers’ legions of fans. It has its weaknesses, especially when it comes to the satirical side of things, but it’s still a comedy that looks great and has plenty of laughs. Not vintage Coen, maybe, but it’s most certainly a joyful piece of frivolous nostalgia.
Hail, Caesar! is released in cinemas on Friday, 4 March and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 3 March.