ALL THE ELEMENTS are there for a wonderful, and nostalgic screwball comedy in Hail Caesar! – the Coen Brothers’ affectionate homage to the golden era of Hollywood.
The story is largely built around a few days in the life of the production head of Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix…manic? ( A charismatic Josh Brolin).
It’s his job to placate an invisible powerbroker in New York, manage the direction of his many productions, and at the same time hide the peccadillos of his wayward stars (DeeAnn Moran – Scarlett Johansson as America’s virgin and an Esther Williams type – is pregnant; Gloria DeLamour –Natasha Bassett- is about to be raided for doing a nudie shoot, and his big ticket star, Baird Whitlock – George Clooney – who may be a Rock Hudson-esque closet queen, has gone missing, maybe on a bender). It’s all crippling him with guilt. His mandate of maintaining appearances at all costs comes down to his own small peccadillo of smoking behind his wife’s back. In the world of Tinseltown tales, image is all.
We see peeks into Eddie’s multiple simultaneous productions, all of which are spot-on perfect: DeeAnn Moran is the mermaid-tailed centre-piece of one of those synchronised swimming extravaganzas…except her bulging stomach is beginning to prove troublesome (Mannix must dream up a plausible story to account for the arrival of her child: adoption? marriage to someone the public will approve of? No one mentions abortion, which, duh, you’d think would be obvious);
Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum – is a brilliant singing, dancing sailor who hoofs it in a dreamy routine straight out of South Pacific (except that he’s part of a new group of Hollywood communists…more trouble for Eddie);
Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich from Blue Jasmine) is a Ricky Nelson type crooner who the studios want to cast against type as an urbane sophisticate; and Baird (all looks and no brain) is the heroic star of the eponymous Hail Caesar!, a The Robe/The Greatest Story Ever Told type production with a cast of thousands. But he’s kidnapped by a group of communist writers who call themselves The Future.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Poor Eddie, he’s up against the past, with the warring gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) digging up the dirt on Baird, and now also up against the future (the advent of TV, the collapse of the Hollywood Studio system, his own job security, and of course this shadowy group of recognition seeking, equality demanding pre-Blacklist commie writers). Lockheed is courting him and offering him a better image of the future…one that’s secure. It’s an ‘out’, and it’s awfully tempting. Will he be tempted?
And amidst all this happy mayhem, there are some outlandishly funny moments (in particular an hysterical attempt by snooty Brit director Lawrence Lorenz – a pitch perfect Ralph Fiennes – to coach simpleton Hobie Doyle into appearing sophisticated and articulating his words with that peculiarly fake semi British accent that represented Hollywood classiness back in the 50’s).
But for the large part, Hail Caesar lacks the verbal dexterity of a Woody Allen (which it tries to ape in some of the silly discussions about God and Communism), or the screwball plotting of, say a Some Like it Hot. The mish mash of a plot – more loosely connected vignettes than plot per se – never really builds to any sort of punch line and our fearless hero – George Clooney – wearing his Oh Brother Where Art Thou ‘stupid face’ is embarrassing.
George has done some marvelous work in the past: The Descendants, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck etc. But Hail Caesar! falls into his group of ‘really bad crap’: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, The Monuments Men, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats
As for the Coens, their recent creds are almost beyond reproach (Bridge of Spies, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men etc). Let’s hope this is an aberration from which they can quickly recover.
At least, even during its (many) moments of humourless tedium, the look of the movie, shot be the peerless Roger Deakins (Sicario, Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall etc) is always engagingly watchable