It’s Hollywood, folks! The 50s are underway and the studios are churning out westerns, musicals, period dramas, aquatic ballets, and historical epics – all under the shadow of America’s new reality: the Cold War. With abducted film stars, starlets’ pregnancies to cover up, and dopey western stars to recast, Head of Production and studio fixer Eddie Mannix has his work cut out for him.
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers’ latest caper, returning close to the period and setting of Barton Fink, but with far more of their shaggy dog story sensibility that their lighter canon is known for. It’s a great pity that the film has already had a damp opening weekend over in the States (the worst the Coens have ever had, in fact) because it is witty and assured entry in the Coen brothers catalogue.
This is not an ensemble film
Let’s get my griping about misleading advertising over with early (I know it is becoming a theme here, but when you have to sit through trailers so often, you tend to build up fierce opinions about them): this is not an ensemble film. Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix is our protagonist; with Alden Ehrenreich as primary support Hobie Doyle; George Clooney as Baird Whitlock is talking a MacGuffin. The pitch of the adverts and posters is that this film is like a hydra with many heads. It is not. Most of the big names are little more than cameos.
It is of little detriment to the film but it can’t help not deliver on some of the promise created by the promotions. Ralph Fiennes is given pride of place in the extended trailer but has only a little more than a single scene in the film. And I hold underusing Ralph Fiennes as a cardinal sin. Scarlett Johansson has a very minor subplot; Channing Tatum has barely more than a dance number. It is done in service of showing the sprawling world of cinema production but some of these only play into the main thrust of the piece.
Hail, Caesar! is an excuse for the Coens to play at all sorts of elaborate set pieces
But enough of the nit-picking. So, it has a main character and more focus than the scattergun ensemble piece I expected: big deal. The Coens are a safe set of hands for any project. An assessment is going to fall within two categories for them: solid or exemplary. If it doesn’t really innovate the genre, you can still expect an exemplary amount of polish in their work. I think the latter is the case here.
The perennial Coen love of period detail abounds in the film, and it goes far beyond the costumes. The real appeal for the Coens clearly comes in the shooting of the scenes within the films within the film. Hail, Caesar! is an excuse for the Coens to play at all sorts of elaborate set pieces, like old fashioned dance numbers, extravagant physical sets and aquatic acrobatics. It is run through with an air of affectionate parody.
You don’t have to be getting off on nostalgia and communism jokes to find this intensely funny
But there is more than surface and glamour to find here. Like Trumbo, the film is steeped in the militarism and political paranoia of the era, but here this remains a subtext. I think this is where it has the edge on Trumbo, because despite ostensibly similar subject matter, it doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out. The escalation of the destructive capabilities of man, the stakes of the Cold War, is embodied by the Lockheed talent hunter on the periphery. Social attitudes get a nod and allusion. The political threats and grievances are revealed with a sophistication lacking in the babies-first-political-allegiance in Trumbo.
And above all, it is funny. Damn funny. You don’t have to be getting off on nostalgia and communism jokes to find this intensely funny. Why this hasn’t taken off elsewhere is beyond me. Hail, Caesar! is what it aims to pay homage to: an immensely entertaining spectacle.
Verdict: An hilarious tribute to the history (and some of the darkness) behind the silver screen.