Hail, Caesar! The Coen Brothers: would that TWER so simple

Hail, Caesar! is the new film written, directed and co-produced by the incomparable Coen brothers, and their first since the atmospheric and moody Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013.

It’s the fourth instalment of the Knucklehead trilogy (I know, I know – must be a Coen thing) after Burn After Reading (2008), Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

And what a breath of fresh air it is: funny and witty and giddy and flakey and thoughtful as only these fraternal auteurs can be.

It tells the story of a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin being serious and capable and sincere), a fixer for Capital Pictures in the 1950s whose job it is to sweep under the carpet the scandals and scrapes of the studio’s various Hollywood stars and make sure that movies get to the box offices. Scandals like the pregnancy (possibly awkward if the father is a married Swedish director) of DeeAnna Moran (a lippy Scarlett Johanssson vamping it up), ostensibly a wholesome and single actress who plays the lead mermaid in an aquatic series; and scrapes like the kidnapping and ransoming of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney doing a variation on a Buzz Lightyear meets Ben Hur sendup in a skirt) as the studio’s womanizing and boozing leading star.

Fantastic turns by Ralph Fiennes playing a movie director and doing a good impersonation of himself in The Grand Budapest Hotel; Tilda Swinton as the cold twins with the lovely Dickensian names Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker, gossip columnists digging for dirt; Frances McDormand as a film technician (wonder how she got the gig?); Jonah Hill as a shady resource on whom the studio can call whenever he is needed (he strikes lucky but I’m not telling); Channing Tatum as a gay sailor/dancer/singer with a twist; and Michael Gambon as narrator.

The film is deeply layered, playing, as it does films within a film, actors playing actors in ‘real life’ and acting and so on. On one level its an homage of sorts to the work ethic and get it done-ness of the old style studios – and the importance of movies. On another it’s taking the mickey out of film-making and the movies themselves as well as plot incidentals like Catholic confessions and the 1950s communist menace. When it threatens to get reverential about the importance and beauty of movies near the end in a Clooney meets Jesus scene, the carpet is pulled out from under us with the very last word. And there is a lot of self-referencing (that scene, for example, being very close to a famous John Wayne shot in The Greatest Story Ever Told).

The narration of Gambon, saxophone riffs and rain strewn distant night shots of Brolin around Hollywood and the studio gives the ‘real’ film a noirish ‘down these mean streets’ look at times. But he is also a modest living family man under pressure, a strict Catholic and an all round good guy who loves movies but has to make a tough decision. His eventual choice is significant – or is it? It’s never straightforward with the Coens. Would that TWER so simple (in-joke).

We also get to see enjoyable clips from many of the old faithfuls: a singalong cowboy (with Alden Ehrenreich stealing the show as the resident Roy Rogers type); a musical/dance with more sailors than you can throw a buoy at; an aquamusical (look it up), featuring a fantastic synchronized swimming scene reminiscent of The Big Lebowski; a Roman toga/Messiah romp (as in Hail, Caesar!) and a serious drama, with the main actors wearing evening dress and sporting those mock English accents (except poor Alden).

There are some hilarious laugh out loud scenes, when Brolin runs the depiction of Jesus in Hail. Caesar! by a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant vicar and a Greek Orthodox priest; and another when a camp Anglified Fiennes tries to give a cowboy an elocution lesson, but it’s not an all out romp like Raising Arizona. Nor does it feature the hilarious lead role that The Big Lebowski or even Fargo did – though Clooney does his best with a group of Communist kidnapping script writers.

The script is always engaging if you make the effort, the acting is superb as is the production quality and the texture and detail of every single scene. The length: 1 hour 46 minutes is fine. The music is so good you don’t really notice it. Hail, Caesar! is funny, mischievous, pacy, appealing, slick and easy on the eye. And it’s different, which is always a plus. It’s the Coens; go see it.

Hail, Ethan! Hail Joel!


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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