The Coen brothers’ latest is a glitzy comedy set in Hollywood’s Golden Age. It has all the hallmarks of the directors’ films – but with one unexpected turn, writes Nicholas Barber.

When you see a new Coen brothers’ film, you assume that you’ll be dazzled by their wordplay, delighted by their characters, bamboozled by their plotting, and depressed by their cruel conviction that we’re all destined for suffering and disappointment. What you don’t expect is that you’ll be uplifted. And that is why Ethan and Joel Coen’s deceptively glitzy showbiz comedy, Hail, Caesar!, is such a surprising treat. Without giving too much away, the film’s ultimate message is that good deeds sometimes do go unpunished, that love might just conquer all, and that, on occasion, all’s well that ends well. It’s a typically Coens irony that this glowing optimism should emanate from a tale of illusion and fakery, but you wouldn’t want them to be too straightforward.

Set in Hollywood in 1951, at the tail end of the industry’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar! starts as a compilation of gloriously lavish sketches, each of them putting its own wicked spin on a different movie genre. On one soundstage at Capitol Studios, a radiant bathing beauty (Scarlett Johansson) is shooting an aquatic extravaganza modelled on Esther Williams’ Million Dollar Mermaid – the joke being that her cherubic public image is oceans away from the brassy dame who talks like a docker when she is off camera, and who calls her mermaid costume her “fish ass”. On another soundstage, a cravat-wearing English director (Ralph Fiennes, hilarious) oversees a sophisticated drawing-room romance, but his studio-mandated leading man (Alden Ehrenreich, staking his claim to be the next DiCaprio) is a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy who has never tackled any dialogue more demanding than “Yeeha!” On a third stage, a navy musical (featuring the acrobatic Channing Tatum – half Gene Kelly, half Magic Mike) is more than a smidge homoerotic. And on a fourth, a Technicolor Quo Vadis-alike Biblical epic is underway, featuring a rugged matinee idol (George Clooney in buffoon mode) who believes that to be authentically Roman is to guffaw lustily for 30 seconds after every line.

Essentially, the first half hour of Hail, Caesar! is a classier version of a Mel Brooks comedy

Essentially, the first half hour of Hail, Caesar! is a classier version of a Mel Brooks comedy, or a much classier version of those loathsome Date Movie/Disaster Movie parodies which now, mercifully, seem to have faded away. Without worrying too much about advancing the story, the Coens are happy to spend time poking fun at one type of film after another, but the larkiness of these tongue-in-cheek sequences is always grounded by the writer-directors’ deep love and knowledge of the classics they’re spoofing, and by their attention to the most microscopic detail. Much of the credit should go to the production designer, Jess Gonchor, and the costume designer, Mary Zophres, who have recreated 1950s Hollywood with such panache. But it’s the Coens who should get some sort of award for the characters’ names: Clooney’s is Baird Whitlock, Fiennes’ is Laurence Laurentz – and the difference in pronunciation between his first and last name is a priceless gag in itself.

These various lampoons are linked, however tenuously, by the film’s square-jawed, barrel-chested hero, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Officially Capitol’s ‘Head of Physical Production’ (another only-the-Coens name), Mannix is actually a roving problem-solver. If a bribe needs to be paid, a pregnant starlet needs to be married off, or two gossip columnists (both played by a brittle Tilda Swinton) need to be placated, Mannix does the job tirelessly, with the un-cynical belief that he is doing what’s right. In one lovely skit, he even canvasses a group of priests on whether his latest blockbuster’s depiction of Jesus could be deemed offensive. “The Bible, of course, is terrific,” he concedes, although Capitol can tell its “swell story” with a bit more pizzazz. Incidentally, fans of the Coens’ previous backlot satire, 1991’s Barton Fink, will be pleased that this particular meeting is held in The Wallace Beery Conference Room – a nod to the “Wallace Beery wrestling picture” that brought Barton such grief.

Veni, vidi, vici

Mannix’s most pressing task, during the day-and-a-half covered by Hail, Caesar!, is to locate Baird Whitlock after he is drugged and kidnapped by two of the extras (it’s this development we have to thank for the cherishable sight of Wayne Knight, aka Newman from Seinfeld, running in a toga). When Whitlock wakes up in his abductors’ Malibu hide-out, the Coens introduce another sketch, this time about a lunkish movie star in Roman armour getting to grips with dialectical materialism. But it’s around here that the film’s opening energy dissipates. 

In the central stretch of Hail, Caesar!, it meanders all over the place, going nowhere in particular, as if the Coens are losing interest in their own film. As they so often do, they resort to throwing in something outlandish from another film altogether. It was a flying saucer in The Man Who Wasn’t There and a tornado in A Serious Man. In Hail, Caesar! it’s a Soviet submarine. And when it surfaces, the giddy fun of the early scenes gives way to forced silliness.

What is miraculous about Hail, Caesar! is how satisfyingly it pulls itself together. After that mid-film lull, it somehow ties all – well, almost all – of its plot strands into a knot, and it reaches a sly but big-hearted climax that finds common ground between Communism, Christianity and the Hollywood studio system. Of course, you can never quite tell how sincere the Coens are being, but they do seem to imply that, as ridiculous and immoral as movie-making may be, it might just be more positive than making atom bombs. Hail, Caesar! is that rare beast: a feel-good Coen brothers film. It feels very good indeed.

★���★★☆

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