Sometimes the Coens seem like filmmakers from another time. How many screenwriters working today give a second thought to the rhythm of their dialogue? Of that number, how many are able to fill their films to the brim with not just the timing, rhyming, alliteration and assonance of their scripts, but the rhythmic, propulsive editing that complements them?
Maybe in Hollywood’s so-called golden age the number would have been higher – back when film studios had a point to prove and would bring in the biggest hit writers from broadway to help them do it. That period clearly fascinates the Coens, as Hail, Caesar! sees them returning to the theme they first covered in Barton Fink, which remains one of a handful of contenders for the ‘best Coens picture’ title.
The film rests on the perfectly pitched performance of Josh Brolin as executive ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix. By following a day in his life, the story somehow both keeps a single-minded focus on his character and meanders off into various pastiches and set piece sequences. There are riffs on light-hearted westerns, two distinct dance scenes (one Busby Berkeley influenced, the other a take-off of On the Town), and of course the film within a film also called Hail, Caesar! – a swords and sandals biblical epic.
In between these extended distractions, Eddie Mannix’s typical day is shot no more realistically. It has its own outlandish characters, tropes and set pieces – most notably a classic piece of Coen comedy where holy men from four different faiths get together to discuss whether the biblical epic is offensive, and get immediately sidetracked by old doctrinal feuds. Amidst these knowingly fakey elements, Michael Gambon’s narrator of the film within a film even bleeds over to provide deliciously unnecessary narration of Eddie’s story.
Among the recurring strands that make up Eddie’s day are two quick meals with a slightly diabolical businessman, who tries to tempt him out of the movie business and into aviation with a picture of the atomic bomb. He insults the “make-believe” of pictures and Eddie’s role as a babysitter to spoilt actors, and for the majority of the movie the only response comes from its joyful tone.
There is satire throughout Hail, Caesar!, but it comes across as some of the gentlest satire put to film because it is punctuated with the sheer joy of those genre nods, each of which go on for several minutes. A repeated trick the film plays is to let a scene play out in full only for someone to yell “cut” just before the end, letting the movie magic take hold before pulling the plot back to the behind the scenes stresses that make up Eddie’s life.
Those cinematic sequences work because of the love and creativity put into them, but also because the Coens are blessed with something that some of their fictional directors are not – great acting talent. Big names are given relatively little screentime, instead using their talent and even the baggage that comes with their image to make their small roles among the most memorable. Scarlett Johansson’s pregnant performer and George Clooney wearing Roman garb throughout are the obvious examples, but the most mileage comes from Channing Tatum. He has roughly two scenes: in one he returns to his dancing routes but with a completely different period sensibility, while to the other the Coens contrast an outlandish plot device with that status-puncturing everyman performance that defines Tatum.
Stealing the show, though, is Alden Ehrenreich, who seems to more or less exclusively work with excellent directors. His out of depth cowboy actor is a walking ball of charm and charisma, and his “would that it were so simple” scene might be the film’s best comedic sequence.
That piece of back and forth dialogue is where the Coens’ use of language is at its most noticeably engaging (with the possible exception of the incredible line, “For two decades the words Laurence Laurentz presents have meant something to the public.”). Really though that mastery of dialogue is on display throughout, in every stylised performance from every big star.
As its writing, its editing, its broad sense of humour and its odd sense of pacing come together, Hail, Caesar! starts to look like a stand against the airtight blockbusters of the 21st century. The film is clear eyed enough not to be an uncomplicated look back to the good old days – and that kind of message would sit uncomfortably in a film which uses an all-white cast to show a stylised mid-20th century – but in singling out the differences across the decades, it makes its case that something has been lost for all that has been gained.
The Coens position Eddie Mannix as a Christ-like figure at various points, doing what he can to solve others’ problems and suffering for it. As the religious officials who come to the studio point out, it is a tall order to portray any facet of Jesus Christ, and by all accounts the real Eddie Mannix was anything but saintly in his work. But Hail, Caesar!’s real success is in how its lovingly shot old Hollywood scenes make a strong case that something miraculous and lasting really did come out of that work.
Dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Scr: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Michael Gambon
Prd: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
DOP: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Country: USA, UK
Runtime: 106 minutes
Hail, Caesar! is available on Digital now and is out on Blu-Ray and DVD from 11th July.