The Golden Age of Hollywood is on display and recreated in incredible detail in the Coen brothers’ latest: Hail, Caesar!
What’s great from the off as regards the look and feel of Hail, Caesar! is how perfectly the film balances the reality of the period, with the sheen of nostalgia we place over it. Set in the fifties, everyone looks and talks like a movie star (though admittedly, many of them are), and Capitol Pictures’ Head of Production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the puppeteer keeping all of the gears turning, by any means necessary.
Mannix is the ultimate problem solver. His days are endless to-do lists which might involve finding a leading man at the last minute for a hi-falutin drama, fixing up two actors on a date to generate good PR for the studio, or even slapping his starlets around a bit just to keep them working, and he does this with equal amounts duty and guilt (as can be evidenced by his regular visits to confession).
The chief problem for Mannix though, is that the A list star of his prestige picture (the titular Hail, Caesar!) has been kidnapped. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is being ransomed for $100,000 and on top of the usual studio pressures, a job offer from an aviation company and threats from the LA press, Mannix must locate Whitlock and scrape together the money to see him released.
In case you hadn’t realised, in the Coen brothers’ catalogue, this one sits very firmly atop the heap of their famous farces. And boy is it ever farcical, but it knows it, and it is so much fun.
As much as what I described above might lead you to believe the story is an obvious A to B situation, it’s actually very much not that at all. The kidnap and ransom elements are of course the through line which keeps the ship sailing forward, but in reality Hail,Caesar! feels more like a patchwork of tales that loosely interweave.
The scenes are short and punchy, and as would be the case on any film backlot, there’s a multitude of insanely different projects going on at any one point. The Coens dip in and out of these movie-within-a-movie scenarios, as much to indulge their love of Golden Age cinema as to add to their narrative.
We see a Western, a Drama, a Busby Berkeley style Mermaid picture, a musical about sailors that has more than a whiff of the South Pacific about it, and of course Hail, Caesar! itself, with its enormous hand built sets and legions of extras all dressed in Roman garb.
It’s the constant jumping between these ongoing productions that provides humour and fun throughout. Long-time Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins recreates each period piece with the attention to detail it deserves, so that you genuinely feel like you’re jumping between worlds rather than just from one sound stage to another, and it’s as much fun just looking for the tiny details in each set as it is following the farce.
This is a magnificent cast, even by Coen standards. George Clooney is having such an obvious good time playing Baird Whitlock, and his physical comedy chops are back in action in a way that has been unseen since O’Brother Where Art Thou. Josh Brolin is grizzled and troubled and plays the straight man of the film with doggedness and a couple of moments that stand out as great drama amidst all the craziness.
There’s great smaller scene stealing moments from Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill and Coens favourite Frances McDormand. But for me the two true stars of Hail Caesar are Alden Ehrenreich as a stunt performing cowboy Hobie Doyle who is forced to “actually act” in a prestige drama (You’ll never hear the phrase ‘would that it were so simple’ in the same way again), and Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, who following his cameo in The Hateful Eight, continues to be the guy who steals the show from all around him, even when he’s surrounded by bonafide cinematic icons. Tatum is part of a musical number for the ages, with tap shoes that dance off every single surface in the room and a winning smile that hides a dark secret.
The thing is I just had so much fun watching Hail, Caesar! And I don’t think there’s too much point to the film other than that. It’s not up there with the very best Coen films (which is hardly a detractor when they’ve made some of the greatest cinema of all time), but it is a great time at the movies. And after all, isn’t that what studios in the 1950s were trying their best to sell?