The last time Joel and Ethan Coen made a “movie-movie” – that is, a film about filmmaking – the result was lavishly rewarded (three prizes at Cannes in 1991), commercially negligible (it made $6m) and sneeringly misanthropic. That was Barton Fink, which painted Hollywood as a soul-sucking swamp of philistinism.
One reason Hail, Caesar! represents a breakthrough for the brothers as storytellers is that it challenges those simplistic assumptions. Neither celebration nor condemnation, it opens on the face of Christ and proceeds to show coolly how movies can express and even mirror religious ideology. Barton Fink was a psychological horror film inspired by the migration to Hollywood of the playwright Clifford Odets. Hail, Caesar! also places a real figure at the centre of its loopy fantasies: the “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who quashed nasty rumours and kept stars in line in the studio era.
His job here is to ensure the smooth running of (the fictional) Capitol Studios in the 1950s. There is the pregnancy of an unmarried actress, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), to be hushed up and the image change of the rootin’, tootin’ cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to oversee. The prissy director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who doesn’t want Hobie in his highfalutin new film, must also be placated.
Worst of all, a soused superstar, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped from the set of Hail, Caesar!, a prestige picture with shades of Ben Hur, and is being held for ransom by a group known only as “The Future”.
On paper, the plotting tends towards the madcap. But the film’s tone is quite the opposite – ruminative, with occasional forays into sinister. The fizz and bustle of movie sets have been gifts to merriment (think of Truffaut’s Day for Night or David Mamet’s State and Main), but the Coens specialise in brain laughs rather than belly laughs. An extended scene in which Hobie keeps flubbing a line (“Would that it were so simple”) drifts between funny and excruciating. Even the musical set pieces, including an Anchors Aweigh-style sailors’ shindig led by Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), have something slightly off about them: a chilly precision, a sense of unreality.
That feeling begins with the opening credits, which announce the cheesy Roman epic Hail, Caesar!, rather than the Hail, Caesar! we are watching. Even away from the studio, as in one ostentatiously fake submarine scene, life resembles cinema. It seems the world exists only to feed the flicks. “You have worth if you serve the picture,” Eddie the fixer tells a rebellious star. Films provide the coherence and comfort that are missing from politics and faith. We see religious leaders who can’t agree on the essence of God. “God has love,” says one. “God is love,” another insists. A group of self-righteous communist screenwriters is scarcely more united. They nitpick over the body politic as they pass around cucumber sandwiches with the crusts snipped off.
Hail, Caesar! has a satisfying symmetry that suggests precisely the sort of neatness that Eddie spends his life safeguarding. At both ends of the film, there is a visit to the confessional and a scene showing Eddie slapping a star. Some of the characters – Laurence Laurentz, or the gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) – have repetition built into their names. At one point, a hick reaches for the moon in the water, believing it to be the genuine article. Like the movies, it looks even better than the real thing.
Although the cast is packed with big names, most of them get only one or two scenes, as though Eddie were keeping them in check. Fiennes is gleefully repellent, Brolin weary but warm. Clooney wheels out his buffoonish shtick, which he has already done three times for the Coens (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading) and which appears to be his only other setting apart from Matinee Idol. It’s ironic in a film about star power that the standout performance should be by a relative newcomer, the 26-year-old Ehrenreich. As well as his killer timing and Sal Mineo eyes, he exhibits tenderness in his portrayal of a man who is simple but not stupid. He should be a star after this, God help him.
Now listen to the NS podcast review of Hail, Caesar!:
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash