Film review: Hail, Caesar!

The idea and title for this film were first suggested by the Coen Brothers in 2004 but it was another ten years before the script was finalised. This film is the third in the so-called Numbskull Trilogy, following O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Once again, George Clooney is the star.

Set in 1951, the film follows the fortunes of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures. He also manages several artists and is a ‘fixer’, who tries to keep the off-screen antics of the studio’s major talent out of the press. In this endeavour he is constantly badgered by sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, rival gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton. Capitol Pictures have several movies in simultaneous production, the most important of which is the big-budget biblical epic Hail, Caesar – A Tale of the Christ. This film stars Hollywood heartthrob Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). However, one of the movie extras has communist leanings and is on a mission to publicise his cause and extort a ransom from the studio…

Whenever a Coen Brothers film is released there is an understandable buzz of anticipation, so it was with nothing less than excitement that I squeezed into a preview screening. The auditorium was packed with a knowledgeable crowd, familiar with the highlights of a body of work spanning thirty years. Was this going to be another Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? or No Country for Old Men? The answer is “very nearly”.

Categorising a Coen Brothers film is usually difficult, but this is pure comedy. It is a parody of the all-conquering Hollywood ‘studio system’ at a time when it was beginning to lose its grip on a monopoly that also meant it controlled its own movie theatres. Hail, Caesar! has already divided the opinions of audiences and critics. There are a couple of reasons for this; firstly, the comedy in this film is hit or miss. Sometimes it just falls flat. The other fact is that people in the audience were laughing at different things at different times. At one point I was laughing so hard that I had to put my hand in my mouth so as not to disturb the people on my left. Then, they chuckled at something else that went over my head. This made for a fascinating evening and exposed Hail, Caesar! as a ‘Marmite’ movie.

This film treats us to perfect pastiches of genre movies of the time; the western, the musical, the biblical epic, the society drama and the synchronised swimming spectacular. Each segment is beautifully executed, depicted as a film within the film and most of the time it is hilarious. It is a celebration of the golden age of cinema when Hollywood was providing post-war escapism from the threat to the West of communism and the new Cold War.

George Clooney is marvellous. He carries off the incongruity of Whitlock’s situation brilliantly as he lounges in a beach house in Malibu dressed as a Roman officer while discussing the Marxist dialectic. Later back on set, he delivers a speech to Christ on the cross. I haven’t seen anything so inappropriately funny since Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Scarlett Johansson is great in her cameo role as the feisty and suddenly pregnant star mermaid DeeAnna Moran. Channing Tatum performs all his own dancing in the absolutely spot-on high-camp No Dames! dance sequence. He plays the dyed blond communist Burt Gurney.

However, apart from Clooney, it is Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich that steal the show in their roles as Laurence Laurentz and Hobie Doyle respectively. If you’ve seen the trailer for this film you’ll have seen an excerpt from the “would that it were so simple” sequence from the Merrily We Dance movie within the movie. This whole section of the film is laugh-out-loud funny as the bankable Hollywood star of action westerns (Doyle) is forced to turn his hand to the society drama genre under the direction of the pedantic Laurentz.

This film is an absolute joy and will engage the movie lover who grew up with On The Town, Singing In The Rain, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Roy Rodgers, Spartacus, Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley. The film is a parody but it is also a fond homage to a magical time in cinema. It is classic Coen Brothers fare; both inspired and average, hysterical and awkward in equal measure. It will continue to divide audiences just as O Brother, Where Art Thou? did fifteen years ago, but I laughed a lot.

Author: Simon, Norwich store