Hail, Caesar!

Affection is not something the Coen brothers dish out at random. If their films have a heart, it’s a black one.

So their latest concoction is both typical and a strange departure, just the sort of oxymoron in which these film making siblings take perverse pleasure. Hail, Caesar! is a tribute to old Hollywood, a loving, affectionate pastiche of the 1950s studio system and a bitter critique of it.

It has elements of screwball, noir, Western, sword ’n’ sandals epic as well as a couple of big musical numbers. It has studio fixers, Hollywood gossips, communist writers and a Cold War threat. It has everything – and nothing.

The Coens know their Hollywood stuff. They’ve been on this territory before, with their 1991 Palme d’Or winning Barton Fink, but this time they weave in one of their shaggy-dog plots (see The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Inside Llewyn Davis) and again take their title from the title of a film within a film: O Brother Where Art Thou came from a film in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels; Hail, Caesar! is the Ben Hur-like film George Clooney’s making here.

At the centre of it all, Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures Studio. He’s essentially a fixer, a henchman who smooths out the wrinkles, makes the gossip go away, sorts out wayward stars and enables the studio and the cameras to keep turning. Many of the episodes in this film have real-life roots, including Mannix himself (Bob Hoskins played him once, in the murder thriller Hollywoodland).

Scarlett Johansson, for instance, plays a swimming starlet called Deanna Moran, modelled on “wet, she was beautiful star” Esther Williams, she of Million Dollar Mermaid, but with the troubled personal life of Loretta Young. Scarlett sports an emerald fish tail for a spouting Busby Berkley number whose beauty and camp poise is briskly shattered by a starlet’s tantrum.

Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton plays both twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker, rival gossip columnists who turn up at the same events wearing nearly the same hats – modelled perhaps on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Anyone who knows their Hollywood lore will luxuriate in a warm bath of references. George Clooney’s chiselled yet slightly dim star Baird Whitlock gets kidnapped – it turns out, by a cabal of Communist screenwriters called The Future – from the set of his Roman epic and spends the rest of the movie flouncing about in centurion garb, struggling to sit down without his sword getting in the way.

There’s a wholesome teen idol cowboy called Hobie Doyle, sweetly played by Alden Ehrenreich, whom the studio are trying out in a sophisticated parlour drama called Merrily We Dance, directed by self-styled auteur director Laurence Laurentz, gleefully played by Ralph Fiennes who dishes out diction lessons in vain.

There’s a lovely moment when Hobie is forced, by Eddie Mannix, to boost his heartthrob status by taking a hot date to his premiere, a Carmen Miranda-type beauty called Carlotta. “It’s all in the hips and the lips and the eyes and the thighs,” she trills, delicately wiggling her handbag on her head.

Best of all is the Gene Kelly-style hoofer played by Channing Tatum, whom we see in a gloriously camp dance number called No Dames, featuring sailors tap dancing on tables in a bar whose design is straight out of Words and Music, the 1948 film in which Kelly danced Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Vera-Ellen.

All of these nods and winks are fine as far as it goes. I loved, for instance, the brief scene with Frances McDormand as editor CC Calhoun, getting her scarf caught in an old Moviola machine. Such are the bizarre events that form part of a normal day in the life of Eddie Mannix. To quote Airplane! (another, rather zanier spoof with attendant exclamation mark), it looks like he picked the wrong week to give up smoking.

Indeed, Eddie’s struggles to quit drive him to late-night confessions at church, ushering in a religious theme which gives the film a disquieting and maybe disingenuous depth. What does it all mean? Isn’t it meaning itself that Eddie’s searching for? He’d do well to find it in Hollywood.

Perhaps that’s what this puzzle of a picture is really about – the lies of the movies, and the lengths we go to to make sure the secrets remain buried so that we can keep on believing in something completely fabricated.

Lifting the lid on the dream factory, Hail, Caesar! is funny, then, if you get it. I suspect that if you don’t, you might sit there scratching your head at best, feeling alienated and irritated at worst. Coen brothers movies can do that. There aren’t jokes and punchlines. Instead there are digs and nudges, smirks, silly names and manic eyebrow waggles.

It’s a cinephile’s orgy though, more so than the recent Trumbo in which Bryan Cranston wrote a Roman epic and was branded a Communist while Helen Mirren played the real Hedda Hopper. Perhaps the biggest star (I have to say Scarlett Johansson is disappointingly wasted) thus becomes the Coens’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, who gets to light scenes in practically every cinematic style under the sun – or under the studio hangar roof.

It’s that sort of film – love it, by all means, but don’t trust it.

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