Memorable scenes leap off the screen in the Coen Brothers’ latest comedy, which lovingly recreates the glamour and exuberance of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the star cameos and scattershot fun do not finally add up to a satisfying whole. Hail Caesar!’s song-and-dance numbers, synchronised swimming and cowboy stunts collide with film-within-a-film and religious and political satire, until it feels like we’re watching an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama.
Coen Brothers regulars such as George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton rub shoulders with newcomers Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill, and the cast enjoy themselves hugely with a script that gives each of them a chance to shine. Michael Gambon’s narrator is the icing on the cake as he veers from Alfred Hitchcock Presents pastiche into Stephen Fry fruitiness. But this is not so much an ensemble cast as a talent show.
When leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped in the middle of shooting ‘Swords and Sandals’ epic Hail Caesar! Capitol Pictures Studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is tasked with finding him. Mannix is the straight man that holds everything together and he is comically devoid of trademark Coen quirkiness. The film is bookended by his confessions to a priest: we expect lurid tales of deviance but failing to give up smoking and ‘striking a movie star in anger’ are the best he can do.
Unusually for a Coen Brothers movie, Mannix slapping some sense into Whitlock is the one and only outbreak of comic violence. Instead, our attention is grabbed by a variety of stunning set-pieces that recreate the old 1950s Hollywood magic: Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly in the effervescent song-and-dance number ‘No Dames’; Scarlett Johansson makes an alluring mermaid in a kaleidoscopic water feature; cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) performs daredevil stunts with horses and lassos.
Exrtaordinary digital effects include an uncanny recreation of the technicolour palette and sets used in films such as Quo Vadis (1951) and vintage movie-making techniques like rear projection, used in the car sequence in which Hobie follows Gurney (Tatum).
It is new face Ehrenreich who steals the show as the amiable ‘rodeo clown’ who has problems adjusting to a new role in ‘Merrily We Dance’, a tux-and-cocktails high society drama. In the film’s funniest scene, Hobie is drilled by director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to repeat the line ‘Would that it t’were so simple’ until he gets it right. Later in the film we see the final result: ‘it’s complicated’.
George Clooney hams it up nicely as the matinee idol playing a Roman Centurion who sees the light after meeting Jesus. His facial expressions as he gazes upon the figure of Christ are a hoot, veering off in every direction at once. But he manages enough gravitas in his grand finale to move the cast and crew – until, that is, he fails to remember the final word of his speech, ‘faith’.
Elsewhere in Hail Caesar! Mannix runs Whitlock’s film by a ‘focus group’ to check whether its depiction of Christ cuts the mustard. An amusing theological discussion ensues, in which a priest, a rabbi and a member of the Greek Orthodox church eventually agree that the film is inoffensive. The rabbi, though, takes issue with the Christian view: ‘God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And he’s very angry.’
Issues of faith and belief in the film refer to the the power of movies, rather than religion, to inspire dreams and Hail Caesar!’s parting words are a love-letter to the enduring magic of the big screen, to tales ‘written in light everlasting’.