Anyone who has seen Trumbo, the brilliantly-executed story of one wisecracking screenwriter’s attempt to defy the prohibitions of the McCarthyist era in America, will agree that there is precious little to laugh about when it comes to draconian moralising and coercive, chest-thumping patriotism on a nationwide scale.
But that hasn’t stopped the enormously talented Coen brothers, who have far more hits than misses under their considerable moviemaking belts, from trying to summon some laughs from a dark period in the otherwise golden age of Hollywood.
That they succeed at all says much about their love of movies and their ability to distill the very essence of the period into entertaining form, and the calibre of actors taking parts including Josh Brolin as studio head Eddie Mannix, George Clooney as Kirk Douglas-esque movie star Baird Whitlock and Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, an earthy, tell-it-like-it-is Esther Williams-modelled star.
Unfortunately while Hail, Caesar! works as a microcosm of the period, showcasing the various genres in vogue at the time such as musicals, westerns and over the top Biblical dramas and the various stars who brought them to the screen, and the thankless people behind the scenes who made them happen, it lacks oomph as a screwball farce.
It tries, gosh darn it tries – it’s hard at this stage not to channel Alden Eihenreich as Hobie Doyle, a gee whiz, nice-as-pie boy next door who’s great at horseriding but not so much at the acting – but it never quite lands the laugh-out-loud hilarity it’s clearly gunning for.
It certainly sets things up well.
Every character, save for Mannix, who by the very nature of his role has to play it tough, straight and as serious as it comes – though he does get some moments to play it a little fast and loose in his amusing interactions with twin, competing gossips columnists modelled on the infamous Hedda Hopper, both played by Tilda Swinton – verges on the cartoonish, in the best possible way.
They never tip into superficially irrelevant with the Coen brothers managing to inject enough humanity and sincerity into even the most overblown of caricatures to make you care enough about what they’re doing.
But essentially, they are there to serve the plot which is essentially about a cabal of earnest Communist writers in Hollywood who fervently believe they will bring about equality for all if only they can convince actors like Baird Whitlock, who god bless him is dumb as an ox and easily swayed, to subscribe their cause.
They attempt to do this by kidnapping the hapless star and taking him to the home of another Hollywood star, who for the purposes of the reveal must remain nameless, who in amusing satire of the McCarthyist era is essentially telling the devoted group of communists scribe what they should and shouldn’t do.
Yes, the group of communist Hollywood insiders have all the self-awareness of true zealots and fail to see they are perpetuating the same hierarchy and system they wish to dismantle.
It’s all ripe for some out-and-out farce and there are moments where Hail, Caesar! looks like it’s getting a good run-up to the kind of runaway hilarity the film seems to promise in spades.
But time and again, though the characters are deliciously over-the-top, and the script sizzles with some witty visual and spoken moments – the scene where Mannix and Coen stalwart (and wife of Joel) Frances McDormand, playing hard-boiled film editor C. C. Calhoun – it never really arrives at the kind of farce that it appears to be eminently capable of, and which the Coen brothers have delivered in abundance in previous outings.
While it fails to fire on all its farcical engines, where Hail, Caesar! comes into its own is as a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and the business of making movies.
We are treated to some wonderfully-realised set pieces including a full Esther Williams pool number, Channing Tatum as the Gene Kelly-inspired musicals star Burt Gurney who tapdances and sing like there’s no tomorrow and the kind of get-the-bad-guys Western chase scene that so defined the movies of the genre.
We’re also taken behind the scenes as Mannix tries to corral the various competing interests and ego at Capitol Pictures Studios, an exercise that would test the patience of a saint and is akin to herding a bunch of belligerent, naively un-self aware cats.
What’s made clear, and no doubt reflects the Coen brothers own love/hate affairs with Tinsel Town that gives and takes in equal measure, is that trying though the job is, and there are times when Mannix looks close to taking a job offer out of the industry, that once making movies is in your blood that it’s hard to escape it.
And that’s where the true joy of the movies lies – in its celebration of Hollywood, of the good and the bad of making movies, of its evocation of a past golden era that, while not perfect, still had an awful lot going for it.
Premium grade farce it may not be, but Hail, Caesar! is amusing and diverting in its own way, an affectionate to the business of making movies and though who persist at it despite the challenges.
Light as fluff, the movie disappears from your consciousness as soon as you step out of the cinema, but while you’re in there and A-list stars are trading zingers and reliving life as it once was, and likely still is in some respects, it’s a fun-filled ride that’s very much worth the price of admission.
- Viewed Friday 19 February 2016.