The Coen brothers keep things light in their candid portrayal of hot and heavy old Hollywood.
Joel and Ethan Coen have never exactly been the type to plump for traditional storytelling. Twisting and pulling comedy down into the awkward, satirical depths of human pain and suffering, while all the time demonstrating a skilled hand on the darkly dramatic front, the writer/director duo are as lauded as they are divisive. Following their most prolific period to date – a four film stretch that garnered twenty Academy Awards nominations and four wins from 2007-10 – they have since returned to a more traditional production pace, with the wonderfully depressing Inside Llewyn Davis not emerging until late 2013. Their latest picture, period comedy Hail, Caesar!, flips the coasts from east to west, but remains floating in the faux-glamorous, behind-the-scenes world of mid-20th century American entertainment, specifically the seedy underbelly of the 1950s Hollywood studio backlot.
In terms of format and tone, the film bears a passing resemblance to the Coen brothers’ light-hearted 2008 flick, Burn After Reading. A strong ensemble cast – that of course includes the Coens’ favourite idiot, George Clooney – winds its way though an altogether fairly thin plot, that succeeds in shepherding somewhat forced spurts of its mockingly mirthful underlying themes, propped up in part by some impressive retrospective cinematic sequences. This is by no means a negative – the two-faced tiptoeing of everything from movie star romances to major political ideologies makes for intriguing insight combined with delightful old Hollywood satire – but it should be made clear that those expecting Fargo levels of rounded quality are likely to be left a tad dissatisfied.
Indeed, this is Joel and Ethan at their most relaxed. The reels flow smoothly and wrap up promptly, with the whole thing coming off more as a 1950s jalopy joyride that, if you sit back, put the top down and let the brothers take the wheel, is an enjoyable enough excursion through the movie industry’s outrageously shady past. While it looks great to boot (with my boy Roger Deakins behind the camera, how could it not?), the downside is that the chilled nature detracts somewhat from the thematic digging that consistently threatens to go deeper, only for us to be swept back to the surface. The writing is shallow enough to be classed as playing things safe, but lacks the sort of risqué probing, emotionally engaging, wide-eyed sharpness that usually falls on the right side of the knife-edge that exists between whether or not a Coen brothers’ film sinks or swims.
Having said that, there’s still plenty to like. The all-star cast, however small their individual parts, put in the sort of self-aware performances that, ironically, inspire renewed faith in the movie industry. Josh Brolin and Clooney lead the way, whilst cameos from the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Ralph Fiennes prove highly likeable, in spite of their characters’ sordid, dismissive, business-as-usual approach to dealing with their reputations. Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich deserve a special mention for their added physical contributions, with Tatum in particular conducting a truly stellar song-and-dance routine that turns out to be the welcome highlight of the picture. Big screen tap-dance periodic contemporaries Gene Kelly and Dick Van Dyke would no doubt be proud. The writing also contains just about the right amount of light laughs to keep one from being too cynical about the lack of traditional plot and character development. After all, it is a Coen brothers’ movie. Sometimes it’s simply easier (and justified) to give them pass in the “anything goes” stakes.
The intended overall impact of Hail, Caesar! may fall flatter than expected (or hoped for), but there’s more than enough strands of interest to warrant giving it a watch. Selective comedic aspects are very much on point, helping to sustain the feeling of old fashioned fun that runs throughout the picture. The cast too deserve gentle acclaim for providing a level of committed performance that, thankfully, elevates them higher than a mere list of trailer-friendly big names. Like the writing, the impact of the characters may turn out to be fairly fleeting, but right there in the moment it’s difficult not to at least feel the usual dark-tinted Coen-inspired anticipation that, if you’re in the right mood, tends to translate pretty darn well to old school cinematic entertainment.