Hardly the Coens' best film of recent years, but an otherwise smart, savagely satirical piece of entertainment, carried by a cast of indomitable charisma.
The Coen Brothers’ gift lies in their ability to forge whole cinematic realities from the most rigid and minimalistic of screenplays; their touch is unmistakable, with a style somewhere between the metafictional hip of Quentin Tarantino and the hallucinatory realism of Charlie Kaufman. Their latest does for ’50s Tinseltown what 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis did for beatnik-era Manhattan – evoke a time and a place in painstaking detail, then fill it with a cast of characters who really don’t know what they’re doing.
There’s something positively grisly about Hail, Caesar!, and that’s despite it having all the saccharine graphic oomph of a Wes Anderson picture. Those expecting a spiritual successor to Barton Fink are bound to be disappointed – although the films share a string of common themes (alienation, champagne socialism, the vanity of life and the rotten core of Hollywood), the extravagant scale of this work recalls O Brother, Where Art Thou?, right down to historicity and the screwball Clooney performance. The latter plays Baird Whitlock, a doltish heartthrob kidnapped off the set of a corny peplum epic; the burden falls upon Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer with a heavy conscience, to rescue him, all the while dodging the press and aiding an unmarried starlet (Scarlett Johansson) through the stages of a pregnancy.
The visuals are marvellously gaudy – this is a metropolis of Disneyan conception, cocktail-sunsets giving way to port-fuelled nights of splendour –, but the darkness is real and profound. This is a self-conscious fantasy, complete with a bombastic narrator (Michael Gambon) and dazzling song-and-dance sequences straight out of the Golden Age. As in Fargo, the inhabitants of this town are just a little too pleasant – even Whitlock’s captors, a communist study group presided over by a barely-veiled depiction of the late Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), are revealed to be an ultimately convivial, happily hypocritical old set; the Brothers Coen, however, have no intention of conceding us the final kicker they did in their 1996 masterpiece.
Hollywood is a machine that profits from the construction of wicked idols and hollow dreams, and Hail, Caesar! examines this in as sensitive and expert a fashion as one could hope to find in contemporary cinema. It is a horror embodied best by Mannix, a man who lurches between odd-jobs in a city he knows not whether to love or to hate. There is no great breakdown, no cathartic moment; the blank faces of the star-studded ensemble leave the audience as many mysteries as they were initially presented with.
All this is not to charge the Coens with constructing an extended rant; phoney as the industry might be, their infatuation with it is as pure and complex as that of Mannix. The interplay between Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a flamboyant British director, and Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy remains a hoot despite its prominence in the trailers; Clooney is on top form, bringing surprising plausibility to a role that is by no means new comedic territory for him, least of all the filmmakers. As old-school farce, the movie works exceedingly well, but it’s the quirkier bits around the edge – Mannix’s daily confession-goings, Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists – that stick with the viewer. The Coen Brothers have always been an acquired taste, and Hail, Caesar! is the definition of auteur comedy; the jokes are going to fall flat on some audiences. But it stands testament to a creative duo that’s not selling out any time soon, and that, in 2016, is something.
Hail, Caesar! (2016), directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures. Certificate 12A.