Hail, Caesar! review: “skilfully handled, thrilling and often hilarious”

George Clooney and the Coen brothers revisit the Golden Age of Hollywood and discover a wealth of comedy riches

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★★★★

The best films about Hollywood range from the unashamedly self-mythologising – from Singin’ in the Rain to Saving Mr Banks via French paean The Artist – to the masochistically dark: think of The Bad and the Beautiful, Sunset Blvd, The Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon, The Player and Adaptation. This welcome addition to the canon from writing/directing/producing/editing siblings Joel and Ethan Coen is not without its cynical notes, but it falls firmly into the former category, having fun with the setting without sneering.

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It’s a hooray for Hollywood. Or at least, Hollywood as it was during the last throes of its unchallenged glory years in the early 50s, when TV had yet to threaten cinema’s hegemony and the studio system just about held together. The Coens drop us into the fictional but recognisable world of Capitol Studios, where much rides commercially on a Roman epic (the titular Hail, Caesar!), whose veteran superstar Baird Whitlock (played with self-effacing ham by George Clooney — even his combed-forward Roman hairdo references Clooney’s own) is a mix of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Victor Mature. 

Although he’s onscreen less than star Josh Brolin (brilliantly stoic as the studio’s fixer), Clooney’s presence in the film instantly links it to the Coens’ previous unashamed screwball comedies O Brother, Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty. It blends the physical comedy of the former with the brightness of the latter, but for me is superior to both.

We follow Brolin over a 24-hour period, beginning in a church confessional, sticking to his tight schedule of meetings with – among others – a highly-strung English director Ralph Fiennes, who’s locking horns with miscast singing cowboy Alden Ehrenreich (a man who literally cannot say the line, “Would that it were true” — this film’s affectionate nod, I think, to Jean Hagen’s “I can’t stand it,” in Singin’ in the Rain).

There’s also twin Hedda Hopper-alike gossip columnists who scent a scandal, played with brittle hauteur by Tilda Swinton and the pregnant, unmarried musical mermaid Scarlett Johansson, who Esther Williams-style routine we experience in all its glory. Brolin is also being headhunted by an exec at Lockheed, who promises him more money and less stress in the aeronautical industry, which is sold as a far safer bet than the movies.

To be brutally honest, in place of a cohesive plot what we get is a plate-spinning exercise, but skilfully handled, thrilling and often hilarious. The Coens may appear to do everything on their films, but let us not overlook the genius of regular collaborators including cinematographer Roger Deakins, costumier Mary Zophres and composer Carter Burwell, whose score is as pitch-perfect a facsimile of 50s film music as the luscious visuals and surgically-accurate production design.

The farcical scenes at a clifftop retreat where Clooney’s klutz is held captive for a huge ransom by a group of Communists calling themselves “the Future” (an incredulous young assistant tells Brolin that he’s just taken “a call from the Future”) trumps the contemporaneous Trumbo for its treatment of the “red scare”. These commies, led by Max Baker, are presented less as workers’ heroes, but as quarrelling pipe-smokers tying themselves up into mirth-inducing didactic knots, interrupted by a learned European professor played by veteran John Bluthal (known to UK TV viewers from the Vicar of Dibley, or as a regular on Spike Milligan’s Q9 series).

Other performers who bejewel the film in cameos include Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Christopher Lambert. The movie’s first big laugh comes for Seinfeld fans when Wayne Knight (aka postman Newman) appears as a lyre-plucking extra in the Roman epic — this is a comedy that invites hoots of laughter as well as chin-stroking self-congratulation for spotting the cineaste references.

What the Coens do here is re-create the CinemaScope age before your very eyes, and you don’t have to be a buff to enjoy its many riches, but it helps. A love of classic musicals will help you fully appreciate the song-and-dance routine led by Channing Tatum — and that’s him singing as well as hoofing. It’s set in a bar populated by sailors on shore leave and could have come out of any musical of the time. Only its cheery homoeroticism hints that it’s been staged with an ironist’s eye from the future.

Hail, Caesar! may not have a lot to say, but what it does say, it says with true love, which is: aren’t movies just swell?

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Hail, Caesar! is released in cinemas on Friday 4 March