Hail, Caesar!

Scott Wallace
27th Feb 2016

Every film from the Joel and Ethan Coen is a surprise, but their latest Hail, Caesar! feels more surprising than any other. Where before they have excelled in genre exercises like Westerns (True Grit), noir (The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men), farce (Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading) and more, Hail, Caesar! is an intentional genre salad, a funny and clever satire of the machinations of the studio system during the golden age of Hollywood.

Noir-ish chiaroscuro lighting introduces us to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a tough, but conflicted man working the beat on PR detail for the fictional Capitol Pictures, ensuring their stars remain on the public's good side. That gritty sensibility gives way to an overblown Ben-Hur style historical epic (the titular film) starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who finds himself at the centre of a nefarious kidnap plot. And still more the film diverges into dowdy period pieces, gun-slinging Westerns, and spectacular musicals.

Part of what makes Hail, Caesar! so much fun is the way that the Coen brothers create a permeable and mutable separation between the films made by Capitol and the real world of the studio itself. With saturated colours, flat backdrops and unnatural lighting, the film lovingly re-creates the visual tropes of 1950s Hollywood filmmaking, even while it skewers their questionable sexual politics, rampant moralising, and even the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts, and exposes the artifice behind some of the greatest films ever made in America.

Hail, Caesar! is a satirical take on an era of inflated budgets and excess. The cast sink their teeth into a funny and remarkably well-constructed script. There are an enormous amount of characters running around, but even in smaller roles actors like Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand find ways to shine. Scarlett Johansson is irresistibly coarse as the Esther Williams-style starlet DeeAnna Moran, Ralph Fiennes is superb as the tortured director Lawrence Laurentz, and Alden Ehrenreich loveably goofy as Western star Hobie Doyle. Tilda Swinton, of course, shines brightly in a dual role as twin reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker.

The manic, absurd energy of the film never wavers, and yet there is still a genuinely affecting emotional undercurrent to Josh Brolin's great turn as Eddie Mannix, who is ultimately the centre of the film. An overwrought speech that closes the film (think Charlton Heston levels of ham-fisted emoting) manages to tap into something real and beautiful about why we watch movies, and what movies can give us on a personal and even spiritual level.

Perhaps the film could have spent more time with certain characters, but that's more to the credit of the ensemble cast for making them all so likeable and engaging. As it is, Hail, Caesar! is a film that feels like a mess, but winds up a neatly wrapped, beautifully presented package. In the way it effortlessly moves between cluttered sound stages and smooth cinema screens, it asks us to accept that there's always more to the truth than what we can immediately see.

Hail, Caesar! is in Australian cinemas now.