A riotous romp through Hollywood’s golden age, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is a hilarious tribute to the (strangely religious) cult of cinema.
Cinema Paradisoby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As Josiane Balasko mentioned recently during the release of Diane Kurys’ Arrête ton cinéma!, every director, it seems, has at least one movie about cinema in them. And so it seems natural, that the kings of comedy, the Coen Brothers, should make theirs. With Hail, Caesar! though, the twin worlds of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino seem to have collided, both now swirling in a glorious miasma of Hollywood’s Golden Age, B-movies and cinema-going ecstasy. And while The Hateful Eight ran cinematic references at ten to the dozen, the Coen brothers here give the great imitator a run for his money, with the action of their latest film taking place in and around the sound stages and backlots of a Hollywood studio. Its story is flimsy – mixed up in a confusion of Christian and Communist messaging, as the brothers aim awkwardly for some kind of gravitas. But that’s also – somehow – beside the point. For the glory of Hail, Caesar is in its pure, unadulterated joy of cinema.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a producer at Capitol Studios in Hollywood during the 1950s, and while he struggles to keep up with his family and quit smoking, he manages to find time for an early morning confession, before another sleepless day begins. It’s the first day of shooting for Merrily We Dance – the latest prestige production from fastidious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and he still has to conjure up a leading man from somewhere. Cue Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a Western gun-slinger straight out of the desert and onto the lot for his first proper speaking role. And there’s only two days’ left of filming on sword and sandals epic Hail, Caesar! – until Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by communists, that is, and threatens to send the whole shooting schedule out of whack. But paying the ransom, Mannix has much more to deal with than just keeping the cameras rolling – with twin sisters from the press Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), editor CC Calhoun (Frances McDormand), who really should know better than to wear neck-scarves, and DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) caught in the family way without a husband.
The script is certainly intricate – with a voice-over narration from Michael Gambon and refracted through a day in the life of Capitol Studios producer Eddie Mannix, as he hesitates between jumping ship for a lucrative career in aviation and staying with the circus of make-believe. And it’s filled with cinematic references (of course!), from choreographies that recall Busby Berkeley’s geometric Million Dollar Mermaid or Leonard Bernstein’s sailors’ romp On The Town to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (why else call the Carmen Miranda double Hitchcock’s ghost Carlotta Valdez?) or Disney’s The Lady And The Tramp, as Western wrangler and gun-slinger Hobie Doyle threatens to reel Carlotta in with a simple string of spaghetti. Cut together, as we hurtle from one sound stage to the next, we’re invited to laugh at the shonky goings-on behind the scenes – as actors dressed to the nines wait impatiently in a fidgety tableau for Hobie to arrive on set, or as eloquent director Laurence Laurentz repeats his young stooge’s lines ad nauseam, in the hope that eventually the rodeo-man in a tux might just get it right.
And yet, despite these delicious scenes and such brilliant performances from George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand and Channing Tatum, none of which it has to be said amount to much more than cameos, the movie industry is also poked fun at – the hokum exposed, as intertitles take the place of The Divine Presence, or as a conspiring extra is skewered in the face by an unwieldy prop sword. Beyond the glitz and the glamour lies a sordid reality – most earnestly revealed by Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran – the glamorous, ever-smiling and swimming star with a Queens accent and an out-of-wedlock baby on the way. And yet somehow, this loosely connected cutting-room floor of ideas and sequences does coalesce into a story, as Hobie takes off to Malibu to save Baird Whitlock from his communist kidnappers, and restore order to the studio and cure Eddie Mannix of his dilemma.
Where Hail, Caesar! doesn’t sit so well is in its lazy reliance on these outdated archetypes from Hollywood’s Golden Age, in which a sailors’ all-singing and all-dancing bar-room bash becomes overly homo-eroticised and where Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney becomes the arch-villain, an evil blond mastermind (complete with small dog) standing upright at the prow of his ship – both red and (as is later alluded to) queer. The communist faction – seemingly led by an Einsteinian Herbert Marcuse – falters, caught somewhere between the Hollywood witchhunt of Trumbo and an aggrieved league of writers hoping to score more dollars for their scripts. But it’s not as confused as the film’s religious aspect, opening (like The Hateful Eight) on a crucifix, and playing through the film-within-a-film Hail, Caesar! with a Roman general’s conversion to Christianity. Cinema here is posited as a religion – a truth told in light – an altar at which self-referential filmmakers such as the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino clearly worship. But while the Coen brothers do a wonderful job of revealing the agony and the ecstasy of filmmaking, Hail, Caesar! follows in a long line of films prophesying the cult of movies. An idol revealed here as outrageously false and beginning to go round in circles.
Hail, Caesar! is now showing at the 66th Berlin Film Festival and is released on 4th March 2016 in the UK