Ah, the Coen Brothers! The directorial duo who dollar-for-dollar have given me more great cinematic viewing that just about anyone else currently working in Hollywood. When they are fully on the button – Fargo, Blood Simple, True Grit, they are pretty much unbeatable; and even their rare misfires – The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, have more wit and invention about them than most of the competition.
If Hail Caesar isn’t quite up there with their very finest work, it nevertheless comes pretty damned close. Set in 1951 when the movie industry was bracing itself for the impact of the burgeoning medium of television, this film is an affectionate look at the tail end of the ‘dream factory,’ complete with whip smart parodies of the kind of cheesy entertainment that was popular at that time.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood ‘fixer.’ His chief concern at the moment is the titular biblical epic, starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman centurion who encounters the true Christ and is transformed by the event. A bit further down the priority list, Mannix is charged with the task of finding a husband for DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannsson) an Esther Williams-style bathing beauty-cum-movie star who has inconveniently got herself pregnant and is now failing to fit into her mermaid’s tail. Meanwhile, amiable cowboy-star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is struggling with an unsuitable role in an upper class romance directed by Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes) – (the line ‘Would that it t’were so simple’ is something that’s going to stay with you long after the credits have rolled) and to cap everything, all-singing, all-dancing Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is actually… well, that would be telling.
Matters come to a head when Whitlock is kidnapped and held to ransom for reasons that are much more complicated than you might reasonably expect. As is so often the case, the Coens have gleefully cast Clooney as another in a long line of handsome dullards, a role he delivers with conviction, but much of the pleasure here is derived from spotting big stars in cameo roles, giving their all in scenes from imaginary period movies. You’ll smile, mostly because though there’s evidently a touch of lampoonery in the telling, it’s so artfully done, the parodies could almost pass muster as the real McCoy.
Hail Caesar is a constant delight and perhaps more significantly, here is a film that simply could not have come from any other American film-makers. The Cohens, having spent some time now on much more serious scripts, are cutting loose and having a bit of fun. The result is a hoot.