The Coen brothers’ latest film is a celebration of cinema’s modern and golden ages alike, with enough visual gags and surprises to keep you hooked.
Set on a fictional lot, Capitol Studios’ biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, playing up his likeness to Cary Grant), fronts the eponymously titled budget-extravaganza as a Roman soldier who must confront his beliefs after coming face to face with Jesus Christ.
A clear riff on Ben Hur, though erring closer in style to the lesser hit Quo Vadis, the production is put in jeopardy when Whitlock is kidnapped by a group calling themselves ‘The Future’.
Just as with A Serious Man, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, Hail, Caesar! is too a treatise on religion, faith and capitalism.
The film’s enigmatic studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) convinces a table of religious leaders that film is now the means by which the masses absorb their faith, through the modern rendering and realisation of religious stories on the big screen.
The whole feature is obsessed with penitence and the deification of figures, religious or otherwise. Mannix urges the studio’s Esther Williams-esque darling DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) to either give up her bastard child for adoption or marry, lest the public no longer see her as innocent.
There may be more to the singing-dancing song-man Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum superbly channelling Gene Kelly) under the surface, while Whitlock has his own skeletons in the closet waiting to be unearthed by tabloid journalists (Tilda Swinton delightfully depicting two rival, twin gossip columnists).
Mannix’s whole job is to run around the studio lot, put a lid on scandals and protect the god-like standing of his stars from the signs of things to come, whether it be exposure by reporters or the aptly named ‘The Future.’
Similarly themed to many of the Coen brothers’ films, Hail, Caesar! will be most resonant with fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou? which likewise depicts a set time and associated mentality with all the indications of a watershed change just around the corner, alluding throughout to the politicisation of the industry and the impact of the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
The fact that Mannix can only protect his flock of stars for so long until the days come when the big names will no longer be held up or seen as a universal paragon of virtue is the film’s tragedy, while Mannix’s resolute positivity and that of Hail, Caesar! is as much a tribute to the spirit of old Hollywood as the classic genre films the Coen brothers have so stylishly reimagined and lampooned.
The slew of famous faces, cameos and Coen stalwarts (including Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and Ralph Fiennes), each introduced with aplomb, will be a joy for any modern movie fan to pick out. The references to cinema’s greatest hits will have any film buff reeling; Mannix approaches his job as if he were one of Howard Hawks’ hard-boiled sleuths, while the film’s throw-away allusions to various classics will require a keen eye and repeat viewings.
With no shortage of stars and love for cinema, in a huge ensemble cast the surprise stand-out is the comparatively little-known Alden Ehrenreich (a more-than-enjoyable ringer for Montgomery Clift) as the typecast singing cowboy/rodeo hit forced to star in a costume drama.
Mastering the accent, mannerisms and even the lasoo, it’s no small feat for a minor star to outshine Ralph Fiennes and George Clooney and that’s just what Ehrenreich does, featuring as one of the film’s many highlights in what will clearly be a springboard for a strong career.
Easily consumable compared to other Coen brothers fare, Hail, Caesar! is a treat both Coen devotees and cinema fans can delight in.
Glen Falkenstein on The New Daily