The Coen Brothers love letter to the golden age of Hollywood is a parade of sketches filled with nods and winks to thrill film aficionados. Leaving aside whether or not everyone else will get the joke, there are plenty of delightful cameos, smart lines, dry wit and sharp satire on the movie industry. But is that enough?
The main plot concerns a made-over version of Capitol Pictures studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix’ (Josh Brolin – No Country) keeping the show on the road, while leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney – Tomorrowland) is kidnapped by Communist screen writers.
Softer and more guilt-ridden than real-life studio thug Mannix, Brolin is battling star scandals at every turn, be it sex, drink, drugs, homosexuality, or politics. Working long hours for the studio, Mannix is being head-hunted for a ‘responsible’ job working on the H-bomb at Lockheed; regular hours, golden handcuffs and the respect of his peers, but on the tools of the nuclear apocalypse. Which way will Eddie chose to go?
But this central dilemma tends to get lost in the farcical going’s-on amongst a starry cast littered with Hollywood archetypes. Brolin deploys his gruff charm as Mannix, and reliable Clooney is a parodic version of vain-glorious, self-important, non-intellectual leading actors of the day (Victor Mature and others).
The real star-turn is Alden Ehrenrich (Beautiful Creatures) as rodeo-hick, Hobie Doyle, a Gene Autrey-type singing cowboy out of his depth. His fantastically funny Morecambe and Wise comic sketch with Ralph Fiennes (Grand Budapest Hotel) as English art house director Lawrence Lorenz, wrestling one line of dialogue “would that it were so simple,” becomes a comedy classic worthy of the Marx Brothers.
Another highlight is Channing Tatum (Jupiter Ascending), camping it up in a sailor suit as song and dance star Burt Gurney, in the most subversively homo-erotic musical number in movie history – ‘directed’ in this case by Christopher Lambert as an Otto Preminger European director.
Worth a mention is the Communist kidnap gang including Brits Alfred Molina and veteran John Bluthal advocating direct action against the capitalist studio system.
Surprise package Scarlet Johanssen (Lucy, Avengers) adds another string to her bow as a hard-as-nails Esther Williams-type swimming-star DeeAnna Moran. Coens regular Francis McDormand pops up as a chain-smoking film editor; Veronica Osorio sparkles as the Carmen Miranda-inspired Carlotta Valdez.
The movie makes only two real mis-steps. One is the questionable dual performance by Tilda Swinton (Narnia) as waspish gossip-columnist twins (yes, twins), whose badly written scenes are saved only by Thessaly and Thora’s hats, each more ridiculous than the last. The other is the omnisicient narration by Brit Michael Gambon (Potter, Dad’s Army), deliberately (hmm??) badly written, uneven and completely unnecessary.
Hail Caesar may not be the Coen’s best work; after Miller’s Crossing, blackly comic Fargo and the lighter O Brother Where Art Thou, this is a fluffy soufflé of a movie rather than the biting satires of old. But it is fun. RC
Hail, Caesar (2016)
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Running time: 1hr 46mins
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker,
Clancy Brown, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Tom Musgrave, David Krumholtz,
Greg Baldwin, Patrick Carroll, John Bluthal