Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Heather Goldenhersh, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Christopher Lambert, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio | Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
In case you didn’t know, the Coens are pretty crazy about the movies. Having come close to making a film in every genre, a logical conclusion would see them swapping out western landscapes for dazzling musical numbers scene by scene rather than picture by picture, and Hail, Caesar! does just that. It’s not surprising to learn that Joel and Ethan can switch abruptly from cold war intrigue to farcical comedy (often in the same exchange); what is surprising is how natural it all feels.
The film takes us on a whirlwind tour of 1950s Hollywood with tough-talking, guilt-ridden studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, playing a fictionalised version of a real Hollywood executive) as our guide through the backlots and soundstages of Capitol Pictures, the Coens’ canonical film studio. Amid the day-to-day work of arranging a fresh marriage for newly-pregnant aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson as the mouthiest of broads) and reframing a singing cowboy bumpkin Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as a high-society leading man, Mannix faces his biggest headache yet: A-lister Baird Whitlock, an eager-to-please oaf played with great incredulity by George Clooney, has been kidnapped. By The Future, no less.
No, the Coens aren’t trying on b-movie sci-fi too: The Future is the name chosen by a group of disgruntled screenwriters who’ve teamed up with their commie buddies to hold Whitlock to ransom while also turning him onto their Marxist beliefs. This comes in contrast to the picture the actor’s supposed to be filming: the titular Hail, Caesar!, in which he plays a Roman centurion tasked with hunting down Jesus Christ and in the process converts, becoming a pious believer through the ancient ritual of spasmodic facial expressions.
The biblical epic is the reason for Clooney’s armoured attire throughout the movie but also serves as a counterpoint to Mannix’s own crisis of faith: whether or not he should leave the film business for a safe, lucrative job at Lockheed. He wrestles with himself on this matter just as he wrestles with the religious experts brought in to discuss the most “tasteful” way to depict Christ. (The three Christian leaders agree that the film is in safe hands while the rabbi merely shrugs.)
It’s not all about the increasingly convoluted plot, mind: the heart of Hail, Caesar! is not to be found in its story but the spectacle it portrays. Scenes from fictional movies are allowed to play out, the film so unhurried with its pacing that the audience is allowed to revel in the simple but joyous act of being entertained – be it by a tap-dancing sailor routine (featuring a pitch-perfect Channing Tatum), a kaleidoscopic mermaid musical sequence or even Doyle’s off-set lasso routine, a reminder that just watching someone do something well can be its own reward.. Incidentally, one of the most consistently enjoyable performances comes from Mannix’s put-upon assistant (Heather Goldenhersh), a consummate professional whose quivering voice belies an all-too-long career spent dealing with all manner of insanity on movie sets. That she puts so much personality into what could well be a bland, thankless role speaks volumes about just how much this movie revels in the little things.
Not all of the story branches come to fruition in the most satisfying way possible, but it could be argued that they don’t need to. Maybe the most satisfying scene in Hail, Caesar! comes when the image of a well-composed shot is ripped away from us in an editing booth commanded by a scene-stealing Frances McDormand, a moment that plays to the strengths of all of its constituent parts – acting, cinematography, comic timing – without the audience having to know what comes before or after.
Appropriately for a film about both the magic and artifice of cinema, this is a movie of moments rather than arcs. That the existing arcs are often more slender than they should be to sustain a feature-length story is of little consequence when the set-pieces are this delicious. That said, while the communist-writers plot doesn’t ever quite take conceptual flight (barring a farcical conclusion that ranks up there with the Coens’ most pleasurably goofy moments), Mannix’s struggle to keep hold of his studio and his faith – more in the system he’s duty-bound to protect than God, who he’s forever apologising to – is a juicy enough morsel that could stick in your teeth for days if you let it.
While I thought it initially too slight and cheery to be up there with the great Hollywood satires, I can’t help but feel another viewing would open Hail, Caesar! wide and confirm what I already suspect: that the Coens’ latest isn’t a satire at all, but a love letter to motion pictures. One covered in spit, grease and maybe the nose blood of a movie star or two, but a love letter nonetheless.
Hail, Caesar! is released in UK cinemas on Friday 4th March.