Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
12A | 1h 46min | Comedy, Mystery | 4 March 2016 (UK)
The Coen brothers write a love letter to the golden era of the Hollwood studio system, with just a touch of the poison pen, in Hail, Caesar!, a lightweight but very enjoyable satirical romp that acts as a sort of spiritual companion to Barton Fink. Good-natured overall, it’s full of the kinds of slapstick chaos and weird characters you would expect from a Coen comedy, but it also dabbles in the same existential waters as their other films too. Motifs of Christ and the Crucifixion, and meditations on the power of film studios and writers to shape public perceptions, all suggest that the Coen’s are still interested in the way forces beyond human control meddle with our best attempts to keep a handle on our fate.
The 1950s-set plot is slight, and has echoes of The Big Lebowski in that it is built around a kidnapping (in fact, quite a few Coen’s films feature kidnapping plots), but is really an excuse to take the viewer on a whistlestop tour around the fictional Capitol Pictures Studios’ offices, shooting stages and backlots, as the cast of misanthropic, hapless characters tries to figure out what is going on when the studio’s big but brainless film star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, enjoying sending himself up again), is kidnapped from the set of a hammy Roman Empire biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! This is Capitol’s latest prestige picture, so over the course of a single day, studio ‘fixer’ and manager Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, playing it tightly wound and bear-like) makes it his priority to run around the studio and downtown LA to try to find out why this mysterious group called “The Future” have taken Baird.
Mannix is a classic Coen protagonist, agonising over his moral dilemmas, running around trying to solve a mystery that isn’t really much of a mystery, and wondering if some otherworldly force is putting the proverbial wrench in the cogs. The Coen’s frame Mannix, tongue in cheek of course, against religious iconography all the time, including the wonky crucifixes on the Hail Caesar set. Given his job is to tidy up – i.e bury – all the sins of his studio-contracted cast (which we see him effectively doing in the film’s first few minutes when he shuts down a young starlet’s illicit photo shoot), it is perhaps not surprising that he sees himself as a beleagured Christ-like figure. And couldn’t God be the never-seen ‘Mr Stank”, the CEO, who Mannix has to pay homage to over the phone daily, in whose name he barks all orders?
But the Coen’s also, for all of Mannix’s cynicism, show him to be ultimately in awe of the transformative power of the art of film (as the Coen’s presumably are): it is the new religion, and Mannix rightly sees it as the future. In one of the film’s funniest moments, which brings all the themes nicely together, Mannix overrules a catfighting group of LA’s esteemed religious leaders, who the studio want to sign off on Hail Caesar! as suitably non-offensive -a nod to the Hayes Code and other conservative mores studios laboured under. He does so by bellowing enthusiastically that it is not the Bible that audiences now use as their touchstone, but films: so they need to get it right. As for the religious leaders’ joshing of each other over how best to portray Christ in the film, they sound not too different from today’s comic book movie fans, who jam up the internet with rants on what a “definitive” take on their favourite character should look like. Mannix, for all this aggravation and despite the money offered to him by a Lockheed headhunter, can’t bring himself to leave this behind. The films need to be made.
Mannix’s other challenges include finessing the genteel, narcissistic British film director Laurence Lorensz (Ralph Fiennes), who is furious at being forced to put the awkward but sincere Hobie Doyle – a studio contracted Western star with a drawl as thick as tar- in the lead in his next romantic epic. Mannix also has to hide the indiscretions of a pregnant starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) and others from the attention of the gossip columnists Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton playing an obvious riff on the real-life Hedda Hopper, who can also be seen in Trumbo), and keep the shoot of the studio’s naval-themed WWII musical number featuring song-and-dance star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) on track. Most of these encounters offer up some cracking laughs, with Fiennes’s character’s frustrated and pedantic on-set dialect coaching of the bemused Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich, in a star-making turn) being sidesplittingly funny. But the Coen brothers also give you more than just lush 1950s window dressing in all this: with the scene where Channing Tatum’s character and his backing dancer troup shoot the corny “No Dames” dance number, which featured heavily in the trailer, actually being a full performance of the entire piece, complete with some pretty fancy moves and a dash of innuendo.
The kidnappers turn out to be Communists, with the clueless Whitlock initially enamoured by all their talk of “helping the little guy”, even though the other stuff about dialectics goes way over his head. But the Coen’s don’t really bring politics heavily into the film. The Communists, all of them writers seemingly more concerned with their lack of studio credit and a cut of the profits than the Fourth International, are as dumb and conceited as everyone else. By having all the Communists in the film be writers, who boast of the pretty minor achievement of sneaking left wing ideology into the movie scripts, the Coen’s essentially have Senator McCarthy’s worst nightmare come true; pinko reds really are infiltrating the studios!
Hail, Caesar! will probably go down as a minor Coen work, soon overtaken in the conversations about their work by the next heavier, more thought-provoking turn from them. But there is no reason not to enjoy this pacey, lovely-looking and sweetly funny ode to the art-deco glory of Hollywood’s yesteryear.