It’s an absurd statement to say that Joel and Ethan Coen have set the bar for themselves too high to jump, but it certainly seems the case with Hail, Caesar! – a movie filled with all the trappings of a Coen creation, but one that feels less like the sumptuous meal they normally serve and more like a puffy dessert.
In the midst of the 1950s’ “golden age of cinema”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the go-to guy for every problem, almost single-handedly keeping Capitol Pictures afloat, but his mettle is tested when the studio’s foremost actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped from the set of its most expensive film.
On paper, it seems like the kidnapping should take pride of place, but that’s not how the Coens roll. Their focus is on recreating and paying tribute to the grandeur and flamboyance of the Hollywood of old, intrigues and politics intact. It’s the audience’s job, much as it is Mannix’s job, to corral and contain every rapidly unraveling plot thread and wrangle it into a coherent narrative.
As a snapshot of the times, Hail, Caesar! is impeccable. Lensed by the eminent Roger Deakins, it’s a lavish and expertly crafted production on par with the films it simultaneously lampoons and serenades.
All but one of the most memorable sequences exist in the confines of films-within-the-film: a ridiculous water-dancing sequence with Scarlett Johansson in her “fish ass” and Channing Tatum’s extraordinary (innuendo-laced) tap-dance stand out. The exception is a very amusing scene involving a submarine, but let that be a surprise.
A cursory glance at the cast list – also featuring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill and many more – further pushes the angle of glamour. Far from parodying the notion of paramount productions, the Coens emulate them. But beyond that there is little substance.
Certainly, there is plenty of the brothers’ trademark dialogue, with two especially hilarious exchanges about representations of the Christ and a single sticky line of conversation (one of the exceptional Alden Ehrenreich’s finest moments) keeping the laughs flowing. They even nail straight-up slapstick in a perfect Frances McDormand cameo moment.
But the ending leaves little to ponder beyond a stale chorus of “aren’t films great?”, and the profundity of Michael Gambon’s narration is left meaninglessly hanging in the air like expensive set dressing. There are also some jokes too obvious for a tongue-in-cheek approach to carry. No doubt it’s high-quality entertainment, but it lacks something intangible. It may simply be that Brolin’s leading man is just too straight to really get behind.
Come for the spectacle and savour its richness, but don’t expect fulfillment.
Hail, Caesar! is in cinemas from Thursday February 25.