Jesus Christ, where to start with Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest? A massive, vast mausoleum net which is flung far and wide and catches pretty much everything it sets its sights on. It’s set in the fifties, presumably right after or on the tail end of the infamous blacklisting of the communist regime in Hollywood. Josh Brolin’s character, Mannix, is the lead whip at Capitol Studios, as sort of amalgam of Paramount and Universal, where big productions mean the world and the stars within are as difficult to work with as listless children.
The movie opens and closes in a confessional. Mannix is trying to quit smoking, and it’s easy to see why he started. He has a multitude of stars and wannabes – some of whom are already elevated way above their station – and needs to satisfy them. We meet Scarlett Johansson early on as a twisty Bette Davis-meets-Jane Mansfield starlett who’s starring in her very own Busy Berkely picture. There’s director Ralph Fiennes trying not to ruin his oeuvre when Mannix insists he casts a good ol’ boy in the part of an elite establishment figure, played by Alden Ehrenreich. George Cloony stars alongside Clancy Brown in a sweeping biopic of Caesar – the studio’s signature hit picture – which will dive into turmoil when something called “The Future” drugs and kidnaps him for a $100k ransom.
Brolin perfectly anchors the movie as the central performance, acting as a dyed-in-the-wool Maltese Falconer. For a more contemporary reference, Hail, Caesar! plays like the best of Robert Altman (specifically 1992’s The Player), and of course the best of the Coens themselves. A bevvy of enormously entertaining and most fully-utilised cameos from Tilda Swinton Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand round off the flagship mysterious buoyancy of their nutzoid screenplay.
More than this, however, is that in 100 minutes, the Coens manage to stuff the picture to the gills with a tonne of references to movies of the fifties and, in some cases, make an argument against the future of where they’re headed. Lockheed Martin comes-a-callin’ on Mannix trying to wrestle him away from a future in movies that no longer presents itself as a sustainable business. Caesar exists in an era where movies where the go-to source for news and entertainment en masse, and the impending, infancy doom of a new device called the television means that fame is fleeting, stardom even more so, and the run to the top is fraught with peril.
Portions of the movie move with such skill that at once Hail, Caesar plays like a zipline walkway through the very best of what we love about cinema. As weary as it may sound, the prospect of a director whinging about his star is one thing we’re all tired of seeing, but watching him try to enunciate and repeat a line for his monosyllabic costar is such a blast that it defies laughter, and instead instills one of the best things cinema can produce from this viewer: a constant shit=eating grin from ear to ear right the way through it.
Simultaneously, Caesar manages to be an epic (despite its $22m budget) maddeningly soft on its target with love and compassion with its bountiful and exotic dance numbers (you have to see Channing Tatum ratchet up the gaydar to near confusing precision in his sailor dance number to believe it), yet biting pessimistic about the communist through-line that would sucker punch Hollywood and leave a wake destruction in its path. So soon, hot on the trails of far less entertaining fare such as Trumbo, the Coens get sidelined with a far superior entertainment.
A nod, also, to the illustrious, and flamboyant cinematography from Roger Deakins. This is his time to shine, and the Oscars had better recognise it come next year. It’s wonderful to see the Coens back on frilly, four-canon form. Astutely observed without being too pompous and overblown and a gorgeous-looking fun time for film connoisseurs at the very least, Hail, Casaer! is very likely one of 2016’s best films.
Author: Andrew Mackay
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