Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Runtime: 106 Minutes
A recurring trend in a number of the Coen Brother’s ensemble comedy pieces is a tendency to keep the plot as loose as possible, allowing their more scene-focused energies to flourish when needed. At times the nature of this invented convolution has entered the story itself as the characters exhaustedly grapple with the flying threads of their plotlines (look no further than the terrifically pithy climax to Burn After Reading, in which little appears to have been gained by anyone). Hail, Caesar! has a plot so dangerously light that it practically floats. Even though the narrative events of the film are alleged to have dire consequences – as newcomer Alden Ehrenreich puts it, "This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere." – everything feels so naturally tight within its pacing that a lack of control is never experienced.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. It's heavy leaning on an episodic - almost vignette - structure is a part of its disordered construction to show us a day in the life of the films Hollywood icons, and there’s a lot of fun to be had from this setup alone. The downside to this method of writing means that the core narrative doesn’t appear to be strong enough to bind these altogether beyond the all-seeing efforts of Josh Brolin’s protagonist. It’s more a film centred on concepts of varying magnitude that actually bare connections to Coen films of the past; from the construction of star image, the merits of Post-War Hollywood as a literal dream factory and the under-appreciation of the common writers (Barton Fink), to the nature of belief and divinity in a world growing disenchanted with such a prospect (A Serious Man). Pot-shots are even taken at the expense of the unfolding Cold War climate and America’s ideological challenges in the face of emerging communism, although this isn’t engaged with half as sternly as last month’s Trumbo.
The encouraging thing about Caeser’s screenplay is that beyond the subconscious readings of Hollywood during this time period, there’s some wonderful surface décor to keep everything engaging. The glamour of these pretty but empty pictures being produced at the fictitious Capitol Pictures are given their moments to shine in elaborate homage sequences to a variety of popular genres from the period. From beautifully choreographed musicals and ‘aquamusicals’ to westerns and historical epics, the full scale of Hollywood’s desperate escapist desire is exploited for all its absurd comical worth. Coen DP Roger Deakins yet again shows range overlooked by the Academy with his attention to awestruck detail that flouts the science of light.
Success lies in the delivery of the fragmented screenplay via an impeccably cast ensemble that the Coen’s have rounded up once again. It isn’t often that Josh Brolin gets the time to show his worth in flashy leading roles, and he’s simply fantastic here as the valiantly sympathetic Eddie Mannix (inspired in part by real-life P.I. Fred Otash); a man who, despite his minor lapses in decorum, sticks to his method of work as Capitol Pictures “fixer” for the sole reason that he simply loves the movies, and it’s a well-intentioned character drive that holds the heart of the films cinematic adoration in place.
George Clooney once again slips on the shoes of the Coen’s resident ‘numbskull’ in what might be his dopiest character to date. His Baird Whitlock is a concoction of witless Hollywood cheese, and Clooney is still brilliant at timing the subtleties of physical comedy in keeping with the screenplays verbal demands. A multitude of new and familiar faces play their bizarre, inspired roles perfectly - including Ralph Fiennes at his most preposterous, Tatum at his most broad, and Johansson as a grossly under-utilised Esther Williams figure with the face of an angel but the mouth of a barmaid. But the aforementioned Ehrenreich walks away the most proven as studio star Hobie Doyle, a Kirby Grant-like talent whose dire misfortune in a speaking role at the hands of Fiennes’ director leads to what is undoubtedly the film’s funniest confrontation.
Hail, Caesar! might not be placed on the same platform as their premium pictures, ultimately servicing more akin to a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation piece than anything else in their filmography, but even the Coen brothers on autopilot is leaps and bounds ahead of what many directors might offer this far into their careers. The individual scenes themselves are simply marvellous, and it’s always a winning situation when two of Hollywood’s most knowing wordsmiths are allowed to let their verbal aerobics run at their very best.