The latest whimsical comedy from the Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar!, doesn’t quite hit the heights of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski but is still well worth a watch for its visual style, a great ensemble cast, and its incredible enthusiasm.
As with a surprising number of the brothers’ films, Hail, Caesar! revolves around a kidnapping. This time it isn’t William H. Macy’s wife, or Nicholas Cage stealing a baby quintuplet, it’s a Hollywood actor in the early 1950s who gets whisked away in a van. George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a vain and idiotic star who is currently working on Capitol Pictures’ latest historical epic Hail, Caesar! While filming, he is drugged and spirited away by a mysterious group of old men. Given the task of getting their number one star back is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Capitol’s head of production and main “fixer”. With such a prominent position in the company this isn’t the only problem on his plate. One of their top actresses has become pregnant, the head of the studio wants to put a western star in their latest serious drama, gossip columnist twins are trying to dig up stories that could bring the studio down, and his wife is breathing down his neck trying to get Mannix to stop smoking.
This is one of the Coen’s zanier entertainments and as such is far closer to Intolerable Cruelty and, dare I say it, The Ladykillers, than their truly great comedies. Curiously, given all that’s going on, the plot isn’t particularly involving, and added to that, most of the characters come off as two dimensional. Despite this, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The film is a real treat to look at with cinematographer Roger Deakins (yet again) doing a stunning job, and Josh Brolin, playing it straight in the lead role, is fantastic. In fact it’s the actors who play the material most truthfully that impress. Ralph Fiennes as a pompous director, and Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque dancing star give two stand-out performances.
Joel and Ethan’s love for the golden age of Hollywood comes across strongly and it’s in their recreation of the films of the era that much of the enjoyment is to be had. Whether it’s Clooney hamming it up as a Roman general at the feet of Christ on the cross, Scarlett Johansson in a musical swimming extravaganza, or Channing Tatum tap dancing – brilliantly – as a sailor in a bar, you can’t help but smile. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t quite match the brilliance of Barton Fink in recreating the behind the scenes atmosphere of the times. Indeed both films feature the same fictional Capitol Pictures as their central company. (Criticising my own criticism, I have to say that it is almost unfair to judge this film against the Coens’ strongest work, for they have made some of the best movies of the last thirty years.)
In this day of cash grab and frankly rubbish comedies with the likes of Zoolander 2, The Ridiculous 6 and Daddy’s Home leaving us laugh-less, it is refreshing to see a well made and good intentioned film like Hail, Caesar! While it may not rank up there with their best, this is still the Coen Brothers and it is well worth a trip to the pictures.
Comedy, Mystery | USA, 2016 | 15| Universal Pictures |4th March 2016 (UK) | Dir. Ethan & Joel Coen |George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich,Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich