The Coen brothers are great at making films about nothing. And by nothing I mean everything. If that makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever, it’s because it doesn’t. But hey, at least I’m embracing the Kafkaesque nature of their work. What I mean is their stories often have a nonsensical surface, in which gormless characters hopelessly search for meaning in absurd scenarios, while underneath there’ll be a profound message about religion or politics or murdering people. Hail, Caesar! is another fine example of that (minus the murdering).
It’s ultimately a film about faith, not just in God, but in political and philosophical ideologies, too. And what it does brilliantly is demonstrate the stupidity of belief, whether it be in a bearded deity, a hierarchical social system or a faceless film production company. Yes, a mainstream audience is going to love this one.
On the surface however, we have a comedy about the making of a film. Set in 1950s Hollywood, production company Capitol Pictures is in the process of filming a sword-and-sandal Roman epic when its main star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a group of communists who call themselves “The Future”. It’s down to studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to recover the leading actor, while also dealing with three other movies being produced: a synchronised swimming ballet (Scarlett Johansson features as a mermaid), a sailor musical (Channing Tatum performing a homoerotic tap dance) and a period drama (Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy actor who’s awkwardly been reassigned to a romance). They’re all as ridiculous as they sound, yet hilariously and brilliantly parody Hollywood’s golden age.
What ensues is a Burn After Reading type of chaos. No one has a clue what’s going on, and to add to all the confusion, Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters who both happen to be journalists looking to report on scandal in the studio. It’s no wonder Mannix can’t kick his smoking habit; I’m stressed just writing this.
Amongst all of the mayhem, it’s easy to lose track of the main plot. The Coens devote large sections of the film to extravagant set-pieces, like Johansson being shot out of a whale’s blowhole and Tatum in a Gene Kelly-esque dance sequence. The former is hypnotic, like something straight out of The Big Lebowski, maaan. By the end of those scenes I’d practically forgotten Clooney had been kidnapped.
Many will describe this as a homage to 1950s Hollywood and that’s understandable, especially when you consider Barton Fink – their 1991 film about a tormented screenwriter – had the same setting. But Hail, Caesar! is far less sincere. Tatum prancing around like a camp gazelle is the giveaway.
I prefer to think of this as another religious satire, comparable to A Serious Man, but less focused. That ultimately helps to denote the senselessness of everything that’s happening. Mannix is looking for guidance from God, whose absence is quite clearly mocked in an early cut of the Roman epic by a title card that reads: “Divine presence to be shot”.
Touches of genius like that convince me Joel and Ethan Coen are not from this world, and it’s only a matter of time until aliens take them back to their supreme planet of filmmaking. Hail, Caesar! might not be their best, but it’s a compelling way of telling us there are worse things to believe in than Hollywood. And directors from space.
Words by Chris Edwards
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