Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Duration: 206 mins
KRS Releasing Ltd
Keeping tarty starlets and their escapades out of the tabloids. Arranging marriages for gay or pregnant movie stars. Gaining approval of the latest biblical epic script from religious leaders. Moving actors from one movie project to another like pieces on a chess board…
It’s all in a day’s work for Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), prime mover and fixer of movie studio Capitol Pictures in 1950s Hollywood. All the while, he needs to ensure that the studio’s well-oiled machine keeps ticking, the stars’ egos are properly fanned and their behaviour kept in check, while feeding pre-approved stories to the gossip columnists to keep audiences happy.
It’s a stress-filled, yet exhilarating, job. But, when the studio’s biggest movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped – in full costume – while filming the latest swords-and-sandals epic, Hail, Caesar!, and Mannix needs to rustle up a $100,000 ransom to get him back (otherwise the film is screwed), it’s a bit more than he can initially handle.
This is the scenario forming the latest opus from the Coen Brothers, the siblings who share writing, producing, editing and directing duties and whose output has been consistently delightful. In a way familiar to their modus operandi, the film is an obvious send-up to the excesses of the 1950s studio system, when larger-than-life studio bosses treated their actors like chattel while churning out solemn biblical epics, action-packed Westerns or spectacular Busby Berkeley-style musicals featuring song, dance and synchronised swimming, emphasising the grandiloquent ridiculousness of it all.
There is much to savour in this recreation of Hollywood’s Golden Age
And yet, in their meticulous reproduction of the period – the detailed design, colour palette and mood – it is also a love letter suffused with nostalgia from the brothers to a period long gone.
It certainly looks great – yet, the brothers try to squeeze too many storylines into one film and the links between each are sometimes tenuous. Still, the top-notch performances from the dramatis personae of eclectic characters more than makes up for that, each member of the sizeable and impressive large ensemble throwing themselves with gusto into their roles and getting at least one memorable scene-stealing moment.
Brolin makes the most of his tough-guy persona and exudes typical 1950s ruthless charm as he scowls under his fedora hat at moments bullying his charges – oftentimes with physical violence – at others fussing over them like a mother hen. All the while, he faffs over everyday domestic issues such as deciding whether to accept a lucrative job offer or lying to his wife about having stopped smoking.
Clearly enamoured with playing what he himself calls “idiots for the brothers” – this being his fourth following O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading – in Baird Whitlock Clooney finds the one that is by far the most idiotic. His subplot, involving a bunch of Commie writers (who look like they walked straight of the Trumbo set) who try to teach him the values of communism, is pretty thin and soon fizzles into nothing of substance.
However, seeing Clooney playing Whitlock as a wide-eyed, totally clueless and inept actor, summoning up the same expression regardless of the emotion he is supposed to convey is nothing short of hilarious... the actor unfazed about sending up his own image as a character whose popularity is clearly built exclusively on his good looks and having absolutely nothing to do with talent.
Scarlett Johansson is a delight as the poised, elegant, accurate swimming star onscreen (and loud, brash starlet off) whose clean reputation Mannix is trying to protect; Ralph Fiennes, clearly enjoying his recent comedic bender, wrings much fun out of his turn as posh European director Laurence Laurentz (most notably in a scene that plays perfectly on the different pronunciation between his first and last names). We get two Tilda Swintons for the price of one as rival sibling gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, while Frances McDormand plays forbidding film editor, and Mannix’s closest confidante, C.C. Calhoun.
Hail, Caesar! is a worthy addition to the Coen Brothers’ filmography of thrilling titles covering both drama and comedy, a list featuring stories set in hyperreal worlds and built on absurd situation, colourful characters, barbed dialogue, sparkling wit and superb production design. If the film’s myriad sub-plots add up to less than a coherent, cohesive whole than a series of quirky vignettes, there is still much to savour in their recreation of Hollywood’s Golden Age.