WHEN YOUR GLASS OF red wine fails to lull you to sleep after a long day, boot up the latest effort from the Coen Brothers, a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a tiresome slog of a film. Take the directors of No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, add a fine ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, and royally balls it all up.
A typically shambolic plot begins in a church, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer, reveals in the confessional that he has sneaked three cigarettes (cue the ominous sound of thunder) despite telling his wife he has given up. At three o’clock in the morning, Mannix turns up at the house of a young Hollywood starlet to save her from a “possible French postcard situation” before heading over to Capitol Pictures, where filming of the biblical epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is underway.
The narrative then jumps, chaotically, between Mannix, who liaises with religious leaders to make sure the titular film-within-a-film, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t offend anyone, leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is drugged and kidnapped during filming by a group calling themselves “The Future”, and British director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who tries out cowboy newcomer Holbie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as the leading man for his sophisticated drama, Merrily We Dance. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran needs to find a husband, and fast.
The directors interweave scenes of synchronised swimming with tap-dancing sailors and toga-wearing actors against a backdrop of Soviet sympathising and jaded screenwriters, bomb tests and celebrity scandal. Clearly, Ethan and Joel Coen have lavished heaps of affection on their homage to the Hollywood of the 1950s, but that fails to make Hail, Caesar! anything resembling a good film.
There is a scene, for instance, in which Laurentz has Doyle try to say–repeatedly–“would it that it were so” that was so inane that I could not believe that there was anyone over the age of three that could find it amusing–and the comedy doesn’t get much better from there. The best scene of the film–a dance routine involving Channing Tatum and a group of sailors filmed in a single, long take–fails to save the film from sinking into its own excess. Jonah Hill, who was given top billing but whose character, Joseph Silverton, appears in just one scene and Tilda Swinton, who plays the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, may as well not have appeared in the film at all.
Hail, Caesar! is the sort of movie that plenty of film fans will pretend to like (think of those who refer to Quentin Tarantino simply as “Quentin”) because they think that it implies a degree of cinematic sophistication. For the contemporary poseurs, to like Hail, Caesar! suggests to anyone bothered enough to listen that they have an in-depth knowledge of the showbiz scene of a bygone screen age. But simply because dedicated film-lovers have that knowledge, or pick up on the references to Singing’ in the Rain and Ben-Hur, or recognise the homages to Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston, Carmen Miranda and Esther Williams, isn’t to make this overindulgent nostalgia-fest remotely entertaining, and it is a condescending sneer to suggest that those who didn’t enjoy the film “didn’t get it”.
Hail, Caesar!, then, is, at best, a gentle and affectionate parody of the golden age of Hollywood by a pair of directors who, after a string of more serious screenwriting credits–Unbroken, Bridge of Spies–may have felt entitled to a little recreational filmmaking. But it’s nevertheless intolerably boring, and a waste of a very fine cast.
What is most disappointing is that the Coen Brothers have been behind some of the most entertaining comedies of the past decade, and might, in Hail, Caesar!, have passed on a few of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, knowing-chuckle sort of gags in favour of something broader, and less ramshackle. That, and not introduced a promising cast of characters only to let them languish, half-used.