HAIL, CAESAR! (Universal)
Dir, Script. The Coen Brothers
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Plot: Studio head Eddie Mannix (Brolin) has a more difficult day than usual when the star of the studio’s biggest release of the year (Clooney) is kidnapped.
It’s analogy time (go with this): Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg are kind of like Adele – big, dramatic and very very popular. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are kind of like The Who – more experimental, more unique, still very very popular. But if you’re looking for a director, or in this case a pair of directors, that are kind of like a house jazz band, then the Coen Brothers are your guys. Their latest film, the Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! has all of the spontaneity and madness of a 106-minute long jazz piece: in bitesize chunks its absolutely brilliant, but as a whole almost a little too out there.
For this new picture, the Coens have called in a whole host of favours: just look at that cast list, filled to the brim with superstars, and for the most part they’re all (some literally) on song. Josh Brolin plays studio fixer Mannix very well, giving him a charm as well as hinting at his weariness in his job – it’s clear to see Mannix is an expert, but tired of being one. He makes regular (hilarious) trips to the confession booth over sins that are in reality trivial ones, like lying to his wife about trying to quit his smoking habit. While Brolin is top-notch, its the supporting cast that get the best offcuts of prime Coen-approved steak; a particular scene between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, playing an artistic director and an actor out of his comfort zone respectively, is spectacularly funny.
It is common knowledge now that the Coens are absolutely legendary writers – they’ve just come off an Oscar nomination for helping out on Bridge of Spies‘ screenplay, and they’re former Best Picture winners. And when some of these scenes get going, you can just feel that brilliance come through. Hail, Caesar! is hilarious nearly all the way through, with a couple of its many gags making me look like a complete fool in the cinema when I watched it. The Coens have captured what 50s Hollywood was about perfectly, with superstar cinematographer Roger Deakins shooting on film stock with his usual precision, and a couple of old-school song and dance numbers that liven the film up. However, the film’s revelling in all things Hollywood applies to its humour, and for others that may not know too much about that era, a lot of the jokes might pass over their head.
In fact, I sense that Hail, Caesar! might unfairly give rise to a bit of a backlash: the Coens are decidedly indie, with a very specific style, and while some of their films pass into the mainstream (like No Country for Old Men for example), others don’t find their way into the major public consciousness (like Inside Llewyn Davis). However, the cast the Coens have got for Hail, Caesar! is full of big mainstream stars that have pulling power (i.e. they can draw audiences to a film simply by their presence in it). Already the film is facing quite a few naysayers because those who aren’t familiar with the Coens and are simply watching the film for the stars aren’t expecting a Coen Brothers movie, they’re expecting something more traditional.
There’s also the issue that those major stars aren’t in the film too much: Brolin, Clooney (numbskulled as kidnapped actor Baird Whitlock, and brilliantly so) and Ehrenreich besides, all the big names only appear in a couple of scenes, and I couldn’t help but feel like they were unnecessary, despite how funny they all were. But that’s the way the Coens work: the actors are like revolving doors, coming in from scene to scene and giving them something new to work with, before letting someone else have a go. It does feel like the Coens filmed a lot of scenes they knew would be funny and then realized that they didn’t really have a plot to link them, or any kind of structure, so they just came up with one on the last day, got Michael Gambon to narrate it, and that was that. And while that should be terrible, I admire the spontaneity of Hail, Caesar!; the approach the Coens have taken to it is liberating. And while it does lag occasionally, and the plot is admittedly a very thin one, every single scene (or sketch – it does have that vibe to it) is triumphantly funny, and for that I find myself overlooking Hail, Caesar!‘s flaws.