Hail, Caesar! is the 17th film to be written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a fixer and troubleshooter for Capital Studios during the latter years of Hollywood’s golden age.
Mannix’s entire raison d’être, day and night, is to ensure Capital’s top stars preserve their squeaky clean public personas by intervening, with whatever means necessary, to keep their sleazy antics away from the eyes of the police and the press. It’s a relentless, thankless and neverending job - but one in which he excels.
In truth, the movie’s plot is almost inconsequential. The real joy of the film lies in its exquisite recreations of working film sets during the early 1950s. Many of these are from the OTT biblical epic of the film’s title, starring the Charlton Heston-a-like Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in full Roman centurion costume.
Other behind-the-camera glimpses include hammy westerns, costume dramas and overelaborate musicals. One of many standout scenes is a hilarious, meticulously choreographed singing and dancing number in which Channing Tatum tapdances his way around a bar full of sailors on shore leave.
The film is poking fun at films from this age but, in equal parts, it’s also a love letter to them. The sets and costumes are a star of the film in their own right. It’s all beautifully done.
Aside from regular Coen brother collaborators Clooney, Brolin and Frances McDormand, the rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of the Hollywood A-list of today. There’s clearly a clamour to work with the Coens but none of the casting feels like gratuitous cameos.
What’s so impressive about the Coen brothers isn’t just that they continually and consistently make such brilliant films, it’s also that they are all so different. There’s always that undercurrent of offbeat humour, but the sheer breadth and variety of their storytelling is astounding.
Hail, Caesar!’s standout character is arguably Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a movie star with James Dean looks but hampered by an excruciating hillbilly voice and an acting ability that makes everyone else at Capital resemble RSC veterans. Normally required to say little or nothing and twirl a lasso, the studio decides to broaden his appeal by casting him in a costume drama directed by uppercrust director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
The results of this miscasting are entirely predictable, but no less funny for it. A scene in which a blissfully ignorant Doyle repeats a line of dialogue to an increasingly exasperated Laurentz is a comedy masterclass. Following his successful turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes again displays an impressive comic ability.
The narrative thread of the film involves the kidnap and disappearance of Baird Whitlock but, really, that’s by the by. What does matter is that Hail, Caesar! is that very rare thing – a comedy that’s actually funny from start to finish. It’s not necessarily all belly laughs but the film never runs out of steam and has you smiling throughout. Go and see it.