Hail Caesar!

UK Release Date 4th March 2016
Director Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin
Runtime 106 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 7th March 2016

I’m still torn as to my favourite Coen Brothers movie. Let’s face it, few movie makers can boast a CV as near-faultless as their output. It’s probably a toss-up between Fargo and The Big Lebowski. But then there’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Raising Arizona. It’s an impossible and entirely unnecessary choice. The point being, you can pretty much expect quality with the Coens.

Delighted to report then that their latest, Hail Caesar! is no exception. It’s a superb, multi-layered gag ride packed with far too much for one viewing. Based around Josh Brolin’s perpetually harangued studio executive Eddie Mannix, the Coens use the bare plot, that sees movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) very gently kidnapped by an especially civilised group of Communists - thus putting in jeopardy the opulent upcoming blockbuster of the title - to piece together a barrel load of set-pieces featuring a veritable cacophony of oddball characters.

In amongst Whitlock’s kidnapping, Mannix is hassled by a Lockheed Martin headhunter (or ‘a man from the future’ as he is described at one point) waving a job offer he may not be able to say no to, a pair of impressively insistent journalist twins (both played by Tilda Swinton), a pretentious director incandescent with rage that the star he has foisted upon him is only capable of riding horses, one of the studio’s stars who has had the pertinence to get pregnant whilst not married and a growing feeling that the industry he is so completely integrated with may not be the best place for him to be.

And that’s not to mention a persistent rumour of just how Whitlock got the role in his first feature and refereeing a theological debate between a priest, a rabbi, a vicar and a Eastern Orthodox clergyman, who all have very different views on just who is god and, probably more damningly, just how plausible they find the chariot scene. Oh, and he’s desperately trying to quit smoking / deal with the guilt bought about by failing to quit smoking. It’s going to be a long day.

There is so much stuffed into this marvellous movie that even halfway through I was wishing I’d seen it again. The Coen’s script is a treasure trove of Hollywood references, knowing winks, sight gags and hilarious one liners and the characters, whilst none developed particularly deeply are a delightful bunch of cranks and oddballs. Bit parts (given recent movies, I hesitate to use the word ‘cameo’ in a movie I rate so highly) are thrown in with the usual Coen favourites and all hit the mark constantly in one way or another.

Josh Brolin is an inspired choice for the lead. Quite why he isn’t leading more movies is probably a whole other essay but for this one, his straight down the line family man / studio fixer is absolutely spot on. As stoic as any other 1950’s leading man for the most part, the agony of his conflicting yet very specific guilt is rarely that affecting but always entertaining. His priest has one hell of a job to do (he is treated to two confessions within the 36 hours or so that the movie is set) dealing predominantly with Mannix’s smoking guilt and, though it’s not dealt with very deeply, you suspect his wife puts up with a lot - her only appearance is in the short time Mannix pit stops at home to eat a warmed up roast before heading back to work. And, then Mannix does crack towards the end of the movie, you can genuinely see the soul of a man married to a system he is too bright not to realise isn't going to last.

The other standout in the cast is Alden Ehrenreich as cowboy star Hobie Doyle. In many ways the heart of the movie, Doyle is the aforementioned star foisted on Ralph Fiennes’ camp lunatic Laurence Laurentz as the lead in his melodrama. Introduced over the telephone earlier when Mannix describes him to his boss as somebody who ‘can’t….use words’, Doyle is perfectly at home performing handstands on careening horses but totally at sea opening a door and walking across a room. Ehrenreich does a super job of lifting Doyle above the outline of a court jester, imbuing his actor with an endearing innocence which somehow rises above patronising. His manufactured date with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) is utterly charming and you glimpse what it might have been like for stars secured in the contract system of the day.

There are too many performances to do them all justice here but of the remainder, Clooney is great as ever as the kidnapped Whitlock - totally out of his depth and as deep as a martini glass. Heather Goldenhersh has the most thankless task as Mannix’s almost supernaturally organised secretary but does well as the pivot around which the mogul’s day swings. Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and Channing Tatum all pop up at various junctures in roles just the right side of cameo to uniformly hilarious effect. Tatum in particular is spectacular as the lead in a brilliantly choreographed dance number involving a bar full of sailors. Ralph Fiennes also deserves a mention in another magnificent comedy turn after his work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Slightly spoiled by featuring in one of the trailers, his attempts to mould Hobie Doyle into an actor are gut-achingly funny and get funnier the more times 'Would that it were so simple' is repeated.

Faults? Well, I’m stretching but the movie’s only real fault as far as my viewing is concerned is that as deep as the jokes are piled, the characters are generally so fleeting, their depth is necessarily diminished. But that’s picking holes for the sake of it. If you view this and worry why Mannix is happy to confess smoking to a priest but not smacking an errant starlet around the chops, you’ve probably wondered into the wrong movie. Likewise if you’re looking for any deep comment on the destructive power of communist paranoia during the cinema’s glory days. Better then to celebrate this for what it is, a spectacular, scattershot ride through a studio system creaking under its own weight for all the chaotic reasons thrown up on screen. 

In Short:

The Coen’s have created a wonderful screwball comedy, second only to their masterpiece The Big Lebowski. They have put together a perfectly realised world of 1950’s studio era Hollywood and populated it with demented residents barely pausing for breath as they crash from one near disaster to the next. Vanity, greed, pretension, paranoia, jealousy, fear, it's all here. Breathless in its execution, the jokes are so numerous and so well honed that a further viewing is all but essential, guaranteeing this even greater success once it hits other formats. Days later I am still recalling gags - the communist intellectuals’ jigsaw puzzle is up there with The Dude’s attempts to barricade his door to keep the nihilists at bay - for example. Hail Caesar! is riotously funny, smart to the core and absolutely relentless. Wonderful.

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