Tall tales, shaggy dog stories – call them what you will, but the Coen brothers have long since mastered the art of meandering yarns that take us on round-about routes to some very obscure destinations. Their latest, Hail, Caesar! looks at first like a Big Lebowski-like comedy thriller with the period Hollywood setting of Barton Fink. But it’s also more lavish and indulgent than either of those two movies – it’s replete with cameos, asides, digressions and oblique references to actors and half-forgotten pictures of tinseltown past.
Josh Brolin looks tailor made for the part of Eddie Mannix, the hard-nosed head of physical production at Capitol Pictures, an amalgam of 50s-era Paramount and MGM. It’s up to Mannix to keep his actors sober and on set in the mornings, prevent the press from catching wind of a starlet’s illegitimate child, or making sure his unseen money man in New York is happy to spend his cash on the latest horse opera, melodrama or sword-and-sandal epic.
It’s during the production of a sword-and-sandal epic – the film of the title, which looks remarkably like The Robe – that Mannix faces his toughest predicament yet. In the middle of a day’s shooting, the movie’s leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes mysteriously missing. Initially, it’s thought that he’s gone off on a drinking debauch, but Mannix soon realises he’s been kidnapped by persons unknown.
Had Hail, Caesar! sprung from more conventional minds, it probably would have unfolded as a straight comedy thriller, but the Coens are too restless, too keen to explore the other nooks and crannies of their 50s La-La Land setting to stick to one plot strand. As a result, we’re introduced to the cherub-faced young actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s better at singing and rodeo tricks than reciting his dialogue, pompous British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who’s given the thankless task of teaching Hobie his tongue-twister lines. Other scenes simply sit in isolation, and seem to exist purely to provide us with a one-time gag. Frances McDormand shows up as a chain-smoking film editor almost choked by her own Moviola. Jonah Hill emerges from behind a desk, trembles in the presence of a vampish Scarlett Johansson and is never seen again.
As you’d expect from a Coen brothers movie with the most famous cinematographer in the world handling the lenses (that’s Roger Deakins), Hail, Caesar! looks beautiful. Even when it’s nudging half-dead Hollywood genres in the ribs, it looks stunning while it’s doing so – the scenes of Roman centurions trudging through a dusty valley are satisfyingly mounted. Carter Burwell’s music has a similarly widescreen quality which runs amusingly counter to the movie’s cynical slapstick (or is that slapstick cynicism…) – one sequence in particular, involving a sea-born vessel in the dead of night, is given a phantasmagorical edge thanks to his score.
Hail, Caesar! is also deliciously funny here and there, certain scenes bursting to life with a frothy brio. Yet these individual, laugh-out-loud scenes are also part of Hail, Caesar’s problem – it works acceptably well as a sketch comedy, but flounders as a coherent whole. The difference between Hail, Caesar! and The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink is that they were told from a singular, captivating perspective. Jeff Bridges’ The Dude ties the movie together just like his big old purloined rug, and even John Turturro’s Barton Fink – well, he may be a self-important ass, but he’s an interesting enough person to spend two hours of our lives with.
There’s seldom the same feeling with Hail, Caesar; indeed, it doesn’t even feel as though the Coens want to spend more than a few minutes at a time with them, either. Josh Brolin’s decent value as the straight-arrow Mannix, but that’s all he is: a straight man who, for much of the film, has no comic foil. The rest of the cast are, almost without exception, hypocrites or fools – which might be fine, but the Coens give us no real reason to root for them, much less identify with them.
The one exception might have been Ehrenreich’s simple yet good-hearted cowboy, but even this character’s mishandled. He’s eventually revealed to be stand-up guy, but only after the Coens have invited us to laugh at his lack of comprehension through several long scenes. Had this been switched – that is, introduced as a stand-up guy mocked by upper-class actors and directors for his lack of education – he might have proved a more satisfying lens for the movie’s ship of fools. Alternatively, Scarlett Johansson’s wonderfully salty actress DeeAnna Moran (who refers to her mermaid’s tail outfit, brilliantly, as “a fish’s ass”) could have easily been Hail, Caesar’s star.
None of this is to say that Hail, Caesar! is a bad film – or, for that matter, the worst film to come from the Coens’. It’s more consistently funny than Burn After Reading, and better observed than the romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty.
As a collection of amusing sequences, great performances and show-stopping musical numbers (Channing Tatum’s brilliantly camp No Dames has to be seen in full to be appreciated), Hail, Caesar! is a messy, lavish treat.
Hail, Caesar! is out in UK cinemas on the 4th March.