The arrival of a new Coen brothers film is invariably met with wild excitement by their fervent fan base, and rightly so. The duo’s talent is such that a new release can justifiably find itself being hailed as an instant classic in some quarters, which was the case with their previous feature, Inside Llewyn Davis. Despite the winning performances from an all-star cast, all bathed in a delicious Technicolor glow, Hail, Caesar! fits in with the more fluffier and inconsequential titles in the brothers’ eclectic filmography. Akin to something like Burn After Reading, there’s much fun to be had during the film, only to have that uneasy feeling of “is that it?” creep in as the end credits roll.
Coen regular Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, a gruff but principled head of production in the film’s fictitious studio amalgam, Capitol Pictures. He works diligently as a “fixer”, tending to a whole host of issues on the lot, whether it be devising a plan to mask the pregnancy of an unmarried, Ester Williams-like swimming sensation (a sass-tastic Scarlett Johansson) or dancing around the demands of rival twin-sister gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton). The pressures of the job really test his stamina when one of the biggest stars on the studio’s roster, Baird Whitlock (a surprisingly restrained George Clooney, refraining from going full buffoon this time around) manages to get himself kidnapped by a disgruntled Communist think tank.
The Coens do wonders with their $22m budget, insanely modest for a lavish period feature of this scale (yet again, their veteran costume designer Mary Zophres’ sterling work deserves a mention). As you’d expect the old MGM-inspired musical recreations are exemplary, leaving you grinning from ear to ear, but the duo also have much fun pulling back the glittering curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes studio politics and hush-hush dealings. Once again the casting is peerless, with peripheral figures receiving the same scrutiny as the A-listers under the brother’s astute eye for detail. Of the main players, Brolin is as dependable as ever, and the great Frances McDormand shines in a brief but memorably physical turn as a chain-smoking editor. However, the standout is new Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle – a charismatic rodeo star-turned-major Hollywood player, whose verbal dexterity is somewhat lacking compared to his skills with a horse.
It’s chock-full of inspired moments and that wonderful Coen cynicism is present and correct, but it all seems to hang off a rather flabby and plodding narrative; Michael Gambon’s stately voice-over feels like a deliberate bridging afterthought to help remedy this. This certainly wasn’t an issue in the similarly shapeless The Big Lebowski, but the difference here is that none of the characters are as well-defined or have the same flesh and blood feel as that film’s central protagonist. Even the stock players, while doing some sterling work, struggle to rise above the well-trodden archetypes they play. Hail, Caesar! hits all the right notes as a loving tribute to the films and background players of a bygone Hollywood age, and while it’s perfectly enjoyably, it ultimately feels like a slight and undernourished offering.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76