The principal narrative arc of this latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen is a very slight story, buttressed by a series of incidental scenes that shoehorn myriad recognisable faces (and some less so) into various supporting roles, only some of whom have any connection to the kidnapping and ransom of Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The story itself is of little consequence really because this is the Coen Brothers delivering a satirical skewering of the so-called Golden Years of Hollywood; that time when the studios churned out screen content as though on a production line and controlled every aspect of the lives of the actors who featured in them. Set in post-war, pre-McCarthy Hollywood, the events of Hail, Caesar take place over the course of 24 hours as studio boss Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) struggles to meet the demands of his directors and stars, all the while trying to secure Whitlock’s return.
Whitlock’s kidnapping is plenty of fun in itself, but this story takes no longer than 30 minutes or so in its entirety, so the Coen’s pad things out with a series of on-set moments from the various films currently under production on the Capitol Pictures lot, most of which do nothing to advance the plot. They are a fun tribute to the types of films that defined this period of production; a western, a musical, a biblical epic. Whilst Hail, Caesar is a piss-take, the Coen’s are very reverent in their rendering of these movies-within-the-movie and these scenes – which include a homoerotic song and dance number from a group of sailors led by Channing Tatum and a Esther Williams-style swimming sequence featuring Scarlett Johansson – are captured in all their expertly choreographed glory by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Sicario and many more).
Whitlock is a numbskull who doesn’t take anything seriously, including his own abduction at the hands of a group of disgruntled writers with communist leanings who call themselves The Future. With whispers circulating about Whitlock’s absence from the set, Mannix has to fend off the persistent pestering of Thora and Thessely Thacker, twin sisters who write gossip columns for rival publications and are both played by Tilda Swinton. Meanwhile, in another sub-plot with no bearing whatsoever on Whitlock’s fate, young cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is plucked to fill the lead in a drawing-room comedy directed by the prissy Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose frustrations with his clueless young star are hilariously played out. Frances McDormand is terrific in a brief scene as film editor C.C Calhoun, with the likes of Jonah Hill, Fisher Stevens, Christopher Lambert and Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) also featuring.
Whilst Hail, Caesar works as a comedy, it is the insight it brings to the way movies were made at this period in history that makes it even more enjoyable for anybody with an interest in cinema. Sure, it’s a piece of fiction, but the trials and tribulations endured by Mannix – keeping the various egos in check, managing the budgets and logistics of multiple productions being filmed simultaneously on the studio sound stages, massaging the egos of the directors, controlling the public images of his contracted stars – don’t seem too far removed from the truth. It certainly isn’t a cohesive piece of filmmaking and it isn’t the best the Cohen Brothers have produced, but it is a harmless, haughty romp that draws good performances from a star-studded cast. It is a subtly effective performance from Brolin, who imbues Mannix with a perfect balance of no-nonsense gruffness and a deep affection for his job. The last few films from the Cohen’s have been much more serious affairs – A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis – and it is good to see the duo return to comedy. Energetic and undeniably daft, Hail, Caesar is a beautifully crafted ode to old Hollywood.