THE Coen Brothers have yet to step a foot wrong this decade with their directorial efforts and Hail, Caesar!, an A-list star littered love letter to 1950s Hollywood, continues the general trend for entertainment and reliability.
Narrated by the soothing voice of Michael Gambon, the film focuses on a day in the life of studio chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he juggles with the kidnap of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead star of the eponymous movie within a movie that Mannix’s company is producing.
After being drugged by extras whilst on the studio lot, Whitlock finds himself abducted by a group of communists who identify themselves as ‘the Future’. Their demand: $100,000 for the release of Whitlock.
Whilst contending with that, Mannix also deals with issues surrounding two of the studio’s prized actors.
One, Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich) is a western star who is put out of place when the studio decides to enhance his image by casting him in a romantic comedy, much to the chagrin of that film’s director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
The second, a musical star and synchronized swimmer, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) becomes pregnant despite not being married, so Mannix devises a plan with her for the public to bypass such a potential scandal.
Looking at this and where to put it among the Coens’ works, if The Big Lebowski represents their best and The Hudsucker Proxy represents their weakest, this falls somewhere over the halfway line, leaning towards their superior works.
As well as an entertaining feature, the film is splendid at reminding viewers of an era when Hollywood knew how to put on a show with genuine memorability. Whilst the film is largely Brolin’s show and good he is mixing tough guy with diplomacy, often big names who normally would be the lead in other films appear in smaller roles which pay tribute to the concept of past film production, whether star or director.
Fiennes, one of the finer performers in the film, is very enjoyable to watch as Laurentz, whose romantic comedy faces difficulty as a result of Hobie’s presence. The fact that Hobie is left walking awkwardly as a result of his tight dinner jacket which Laurentz reassures will take use to is enough for us to see the potential in huge casting error, but the situation gets (excitedly for us) worse.
Hobie struggles to even rehearse the catchy line ‘Would that it were so simple’ and the fact that Laurentz is seemingly stuck with him makes the sequence and the ensuing confrontation between director and executive all the more workable.
Two well-choreographed dance numbers also form the forefront of stars taking very much supporting roles with Johansson’s mermaid dance number and Channing Tatum appearing as a sailor dancing in an On the Town-style piece.
Even Jonah Hill does a sole scene as an agent dealing with the flirtatious DeeAnna’s predicament. Additionally, Tilda Swinton turns up in a dual role as two rival magazine columnists, who happen to be twin sisters, as does Coen regular Frances McDormand, cameoing as a projectionist in an unexpected scene involving near-strangulation.
Clooney succeeds in his comedic role as the star who somehow retains his Caesar costume throughout his screen time. In fact, it is the kidnap scene that contributes to the entertainment factor and early enough to not have to wait too long for. As preparation on set takes place, one extra (Wayne Knight) just about discreetly drugs Baird’s goblet as his companion, unable to move for holding grapes, looks on tensely. Made more tense yet just as humorous is when Baird as Caesar hesitates several times to drink out of the goblet.
His involvement in a scene where he struggles to memorize the lines to a key speech is another reason why Clooney is welcoming in his supporting parody role, especially given how he could have easily succeeded in Brolin’s role too.
The successful attempts at humour are consistent, from one scene involving Hovie making good use out of killing time by demonstrating his lasso techniques, to a later scene involving a dog and a briefcase.
As well as humouring us, it acts as an interesting study into the ways in which the studio system operated business. A sequence depicting Mannix discussing with religious leaders about whether the Caesar biopic is likely to offend interests as well as humours. The film does well in reflecting the studio’s tendency to arrange dates with actors to boost their public persona, as well as potential repercussions those with Communist links faced.
A treat for people who appreciate Hollywood much more for the past rather than present, Hail, Caesar is a well-cast, funny, engrossing and solid piece that makes us want the Coens to continue delivering.