The Coen brothers have once again written a typical Coen brothers script, in that no script they have ever made is in anyway typical of anything. Joel and Ethan’s films are only discernible in their originality and specificity. One of the great things about their films is how oddly specific they have to be in order to work.
You could never have told the story of Fargo anywhere else, even if you changed the title. That is a film about criminal ambition creeping into the courteousness and civility of small town North Dakota. The whole film is drenched in the language, customs and geography of the frozen Midwest. North Dakota is the main character of Fargo not Marge Gunderson or Larry Lundegaard.
The same could be said of Hail Caesar. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix might be the face on the poster but he is just the tour guide, the cypher through which we get to experience the outlandish eccentricities of the real lead, 1950s Hollywood. This is a film about Tinseltown and the creatures that live there; the kind that could only live there; that were either created or nurtured by Hollywood and the studio system, and – by extension – America as a whole, as there is no one city that has had more of an effect on the United States as the Dream Factory has had.
Eddie Mannix is a character inspired by a man of the same name and occupation, although he is played with far more sympathy here than you could ever give his real-life counterpart. The original was a film studio ‘Fixer’ – that’s not really his job title, more of a description; officially they called him a Producer – a man who could solve any problem a studio might have, mostly supressing scandals involving the company’s stars. He was suspected (although never convicted of) multiple felonies as well as having connections with several high profile mobsters. The most serious rumour attached to his name is his involvement with the death of Superman actor George Reeves. Bob Hoskins even played the real life version of him in Hollywoodland, and in that film he was a bit of a bastard.
Brolin’s Mannix, however is the atypical hard-working American male, with a little Bogart thrown in for good measure, because no element of this film is untouched by Hollywood glamour. We follow Mannix in a day of his life as he fends off journalists from the studio lot, covers up an extramarital pregnancy, and searches for the missing star of the studios next prestige picture Hail Caesar. Said star is Baird Whitlock, played by a dishevelled George Clooney.
His is one of a dozen stars of the 21st century playing a star from golden age of movie production. So packed is this film full of actors playing actors, most of them don’t amount to much more than cameos. One of the only thespians that can truly call his part a ‘supporting role’ is Alden Ehrenreich. His endearingly down-to-Earth rodeo performer is an oasis of humility amid a sea of pompous ego. Typically, despite having a role thrice as long as the bigger stars surrounding him, he doesn’t have his own poster. Nevertheless, his performance rises above all others and his is the one to beat.
I wasn’t joking about the cameos either. If you were looking forward to this film because of the contributions of Frances McDormand or Jonah Hill, then you might leave disappointed because combined they almost have a minute of on-screen time and two lines of dialogue apiece. It’s almost as if actors are lining up to work with Joel and Ethan, no matter how small the part. Especially in a film that lets them live out their fantasies of playing roles in long dead genres.
Imagine telling a teenager today that back in the ‘50s there were films called ‘Aquamusicals’, an entire genre dedicated to synchronised swimming; or that there was an entire subgenre of Western where the actors were required, to not just ride the horses, but perform acrobatics on them too. The Coen’s affection for these long dead varieties of movie provides the film with its biggest laughs and the genteel ribbing they receive at the Coen’s hands only proves their knowledge, love and admiration for old-school Hollywood filmmaking. The Coen’s have played at farce before and it’s seen them fall flat on their faces. Perhaps it is their dedication to and familiarity with their source material here that sees this film fare better.
Or perhaps it is just the sheer commitment to overindulgence that gives the film the purity it needs to be so complex yet so simple. The Coens throw themselves into the idea of parody. Everything in this film would not look out of place in a film from that era. A submarine surfaces in what we are supposed to believe is the Pacific, but what is clearly a swimming pool; several of the backdrops have a hand painted look, the lightning strikes all have a sense of dramatic timing and cars drive in front strangely repetitious scenery.
It’s being this game for a laugh that allows the film to be as funny as it is. By throwing the kitchen sink at the screen the Coens march bravely onward deep into the jungles of overindulgence, but their bravery allows them to get away with it. At one point in the film, everything stops just to give us a Gene Kelly inspired, On the Town-esque, musical number that lasts for five minutes. This is practically Channing Tatum’s only contribution to the movie.
But this film isn’t content to look at Hollywood in a vacuum. Like its companion piece, Barton Fink – a film about the frivolity of artistic and intellectual endeavour in the face of real world problems – Hail Caesar uses Hollywood to represent all of America and the whole of the western world throughout the 20th century. Mannix is a practitioner of Catholicism and is steeped in so much guilt, you could bury him in it. He confesses every day and even his priest tells him it is entirely too much.
He’s also beholden to the gods of the movies studio. His often named, but never shown boss rules from up high and lays down all of the decrees that Eddie dutifully follows. Throughout the film he is given every opportunity to free himself of both the Catholicism that rules his soul and the capitalist, master-servant system he is enslaved in. But time and time again he returns to the comfort and safety of these long reaching institutions, instead of branching out and becoming his own man, master of his own destiny.
He, like the Coens, finds security in the madness of the film industry, so he devotes himself to it. That is the attitude you must adopt in order to get the most out of this film. Jaded cynicism and scepticism, as well as old-fashioned priggishness will be the poison that sours your enjoyment of this farcical, yet intelligent and witty comedy. This is a film that sees the value and art of pastiche.
This may not be the Coen brothers at their world beating best, but it is certainly their funniest comedy since The Big Lebowski. Do not let the fact that there are broad jokes, gaudy musical numbers and comic book characterisations fool you. This is one of the smartest comedies of the Spring, even if it doesn’t act like it. Would that it were so simple?
Dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Scr: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
Prd: Tim Bevan, Catherine Farrell
Music: Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Run time: 108mins
Hail Caesar is out now.