This is one of the Coen brothers’ jolliest and most carefree films – quite a surprise considering its subject matter.
Opening the Berlin Festival next week, Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood in the 1950s, at the height of the anti-communist hysteria. The main character is a fictionalised version of the real-life studio exec Eddie Mannix, who was Louis B Mayer’s enforcer at MGM. If a male star was gay or a female one got pregnant, Mannix was the one who either kept the story out of the papers or spun it to the studio’s advantage.
In the 2006 feature Hollywoodland, he was played as a dark and ruthless figure by the late Bob Hoskins. Here, Josh Brolin portrays him as a genial workaholic who charms rather than bullies actors, journalists and cops into behaving themselves and whose only real vice is smoking too many cigarettes.
Like the Coens’ The Big Lebowski (1998), the film has the feel of a shaggy-dog story. It has a tongue-in-cheek voice-over from Michael Gambon, a bit like Sam Elliott’s one in their earlier movie. Brolin’s super-efficient Mannix is very different from Jeff Bridges’ hapless, permanently stoned “Dude”, but what the two characters have in common is their tendency to get caught in the most outlandish scrapes.
The particular headache that Mannix has to deal with here is the disappearance of Capitol Pictures’ biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) midway through the shooting of the studio’s big-budget biblical epic, Hail Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ.
Whitlock is a drunkard and a womaniser but he is also utterly charming. Clooney, who spends much of the movie in a toga, plays him in a thoroughly winning way. One part John Barrymore, one part Errol Flynn, he’ll listen to everyone, even the communists who are trying to give him a crash course in dialectical materialism.
Generally, when the inner workings of Hollywood are shown on screen, for example in A Star Is Born and The Bad and The Beautiful, the studio system is depicted as a hotbed of viciousness, egotism and backstabbing. In Hail, Caesar! Tinseltown is a magical, Trumpton-like world from which unhappiness seems to have been banished and the sun is always shining.
Everyone is cheerful. Even the super-bitchy gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) aren’t that vicious really. And one of the delights of the film is its collection of comic cameo performances.
Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams-like aquatic movie star DeeAnna Moran, who looks like a goddess when she is performing as a mermaid underwater but is very down-to-earth and foul-mouthed when she’s not on camera. She takes a thoroughly upbeat approach to problems that threaten to sink her career.
Ralph Fiennes, meanwhile, shows heroic patience as Laurence Laurentz, a camp and demanding director who has been assigned Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) to star in this latest drawing-room melodrama.
The film enables the Coens and their brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins to pastiche every kind of genre from the classical studio era. There’s a Gene Kelly-like dance sequence involving a lot of randy sailors in a bar (led by Channing Tatum). We see scenes from Hobie’s western Lazy Ol’ Moon and of slaves and Romans beneath the crucifix in Hail, Caesar! itself. We’re taken into the cutting room where a chain-smoking editor (Frances McDormand) lets her scarf get too close to her equipment.
The Coens aren’t just parodying Hollywood in the last spasms of its golden age. They’re paying tribute to it too. They are imagining the studio system as they might have liked it to have been – as a true dream factory. LA here is an altogether more benign place than the city encountered by John Turturro’s paranoid screenwriter in Barton Fink (1991). Hail, Caesar! isn’t the most profound film the brothers have ever made but it is certainly one of the most pleasurable to watch.
Hail, Caesar! gets its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 17 February.