Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest, is more a series of entertaining vignettes than a movie. Which is fine, except you don’t realise this until halfway through, as there’s the semblance of a good plot being dangled in front of you for at least an hour.
More than anything, it’s a love letter to old Hollywood; a satire on the things that never change by two superb filmmakers attuned to the beauty and inherent farce of making movies.
To surmise, we find ourselves in Tinseltown in 1951 for just over twenty-four hours at a fictional studio, Capitol Pictures (not a coincidental title). The biggest picture currently in production is the eponymous Hail, Caesar! - A Tale of the Christ, no doubt a parody of Quo Vadis, which really was made in 1951. Capitol’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (played with glee by George Clooney) plays a Roman tribute who comes to recognise the divinity of Jesus. This film’s catalyst meanwhile is his abduction from the set via a suitably Latinate method – a goblet of wine drugged by some toga-wearing extras.
Initially the disappearance of Whitlock is just another kink for studio head Eddie Mannix (the awesome Josh Brolin) to smooth over with vituperative gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thatcher (both played by Tilda Swinton): Whitlock’s benders normally last two days; or else he might have ducked off to visit one of his mistresses. But when Mannix gets a ransom note to the tune of $100,000 for Whitlock’s return from a group calling themselves The Future, he realises things may be a little more complicated.
Except they’re not… Every storyline once begun seems purposefully to fizzle out with barely a whimper. And whilst this may be the point, it makes for an ultimately underwhelming whole. At the time in Hollywood, the studio system was changing, TV was considered a growing threat, and the Red Menace was starting to cause the paranoia that would lead to the outrages of McCarthyism. The Coens revel in this historic richness, but don’t have much to say about it. But, whilst the overarching structure may not hit the mark, the individual sections are little gems.
A scene involving Mannix, a devout Catholic man himself, consulting a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Protestant minister as to the appropriateness of the script and how the divinity should be portrayed, sounds like the setup for a joke. It is, as the scene quickly spirals into a hilarious tit-for-tat between faiths, containing superb lines: “God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor and he’s very angry.”
The film is a delicious showcase for great actors on great form: Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, the suave English director of Merrily We Dance; monosyllabic lasso-wielding Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), whom Laurentz is forced to accommodate into his period drama; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, the star of Capital’s aquatic film arm, whom we first meet screaming for someone to take her mermaid tail off her; Channing Tatum in a stunning Gene Kelly-esque turn; and Frances McDormand’s too-brief cameo as an editor locked away on the edge of studio society in a tiny smoke-filled room.
The film takes us through the landscape of ‘behind-the-scenes’ with barely contained glee. And behind the glittering façade, the actors are not portrayed as clichéd sociopathic/neurotic nightmares. They’re curious, naïve, thoughtlessly cruel and kind in equal measure; a bunch of weird obsessives and oddballs permitted to live in a fantasy world.
By the end of the day everyone’s exhausted but the wheel of the machine is just cranking into place again – it will never stop. Despite the many highlights, however, it’s a relief when this particular installment waved toodle-oo: Hail, Caesar! is a fleeting and enjoyable interlude whilst we wait for the Coens’ next real tale.