Hail, Caesar! is one of the Coen brothers' jolliest and most carefree films, which is quite a surprise considering its subject matter. The film is set in Hollywood in the 1950s, at the height of anti-communist hysteria. The main character is a fictionalised version of real-life studio exec Eddie Mannix, Louis B Mayer's enforcer at MGM. If a male star was gay or a female one got pregnant, Mannix either kept the story out of the papers or spun it to the studio's advantage.
Like the Coens' earlier The Big Lebowski (1998), the film has the feel of a shaggy-dog story. It has a tongue-in-cheek voiceover from Michael Gambon a bit like Sam Elliott's one in the earlier movie. Brolin's super-efficient Mannix is very different from Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" in Lebowski but the two characters share a tendency to get caught up in the most outlandish scrapes.
The headache 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 biblical epic, Hail, Caesar! Whitlock is a drunkard and a womaniser but he is charming, even to the communist scriptwriters who disapprove of his excesses. Clooney, who spends much of the movie in a toga, plays him in a thoroughly winning way.
Generally, when Hollywood is shown on screen, for example in A Star Is Born and The Bad and the Beautiful or, more recently, in The Artist, it 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. 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.
One of the delights of the film is its collection of comic cameo performances. Scarlett Johansson plays the Esther Williams-like aquatic movie star DeeAnna Moran, who looks like a goddess when she is performing as a mermaid underwater but is down to earth and foul-mouthed when not on camera. Ralph Fiennes 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 his latest drawing-room piece. And we're taken into the cutting room, where a chain-smoking editor (Frances McDormand) lets her scarf get too close to her equipment.
The film enables the Coens and their brilliant cinematographer, Roger Deakins, to pastiche every kind of genre from the classical studio era. The brothers 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 a more benign place than the city encountered by John Turturro's paranoid screenwriter working for Capitol Pictures in Barton Fink (1991). Hail, Caesar! isn't the most profound film the brothers have ever made but it is one of the most pleasurable.
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