With its re-creations of Hollywood golden age movies – including westerns, Bible epics and watery musicals – the Coens’ latest is no more ‘normal’ than any of their previous films
George Clooney as Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!. Photograph: Universal Pictures via AP
No sensible person left the preview screening of Hail, Caesar! with anything other than a grin on their face. Yet I, chief executive of the Coen brothers fan club (critics’ auxiliary), did overhear one or two comments that caused me some ire. “It was fun, but kind-off all over the place,” one nincompoop shrugged, before returning to his life as a miserable person. I was ready to protest. Yet on the face of it, he wasn’t wrong. The movie is certainly fun and, I suppose you could say it is all over the place, but being all over the place is, I would argue, very much by design.
The Coens have established themselves as cinematic tricksters and masters of every form. Who would have predicted, as a follow-up to the complex, nightmarish Texas noir of Blood Simple, the elastic, Looney Tunes-esque absurdity of Raising Arizona? And as the CV continued, more crime stories, westerns and period films that either dialled up the silliness or brooded with existential dread. When the Coens won the best director Oscar for No Country for Old Men, Joel thanked industry big-shots for “letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox”. With Hail, Caesar!, in addition to reflecting on and revelling in all that’s come before, they’ve invited their fans over for the afternoon to get their clothes dirty.
By making a movie about the movies (which they haven’t done before; Barton Fink is more about the process of failing to make movies), the Coens get to scratch a few itches that might otherwise have remained out of reach. While studios tend to give them creative carte blanche (within financial reason), it’s unlikely they’ll ever get a Bible epic, a squaresville genteel romance or an Esther Williams-style watery musical. These styles (plus some Hudsucker Proxy-like screwball comedy and a smidge of Soviet propaganda films) all make an appearance here.
What ends up onscreen in Hail, Caesar! breaks with reality a tad. As Capitol Pictures’ production chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) races around the studio during a day fraught with crises, he pops in on various soundstages. We don’t exactly see what he sees: we see what the cut number will end up looking like. That is until something goes wrong and an offscreen director shouts: “Cut!”
This is the best of both worlds. We get a sip of what it would have been for the Coens to direct Channing Tatum and a boatload of sailors in a song and dance routine, plus we also get to see the mechanics of how movies used to be made. (To all the young ’uns uploading their iMovie shorts to Vimeo, let Frances McDormand’s sunlight-averse editor CC Calhoun show you how to work a Moviola flatbed editing machine in a version of a Fast and Furious sequence.)
Capitol Pictures, sharp observers may recognise, is the same studio that chewed up and spat out earnest east coast playwright Barton Fink. Hail, Caesar! is set a decade later. Commies, not Nazis, are the looming villains. But the name (a backlot location called the Wallace Beery stage) is a bit of winking fan service not much different from one in a Marvel film, only for quip-quoting cinephiles instead of comic-book devotees.
The central thread in this “all-over-the-place” romp is the abduction of Capitol’s big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Kidnapping is a recurring Coens’ theme, found in Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, and Clooney’s Whitlock continues the evolution of his roles with the brothers. Age may bring the great leading man’s visage more gravitas, but his coconut is just getting more and more empty. In Clooney’s first collaboration O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ulysses Everett McGill was only a bit of a knucklehead. Other than when dickering with his hair gel, he kept his wits about him, more or less, even when in a tight spot.
In Intolerable Cruelty – poor, misunderstood Intolerable Cruelty: a hilarious movie you need to see a second time – Miles Massey was a sharp attorney who, sure, seemed really preoccupied by the whiteness of his teeth, but was at least aware when his affections left him exposed. Harry Pfarrar, the US marshal of Burn After Reading, was a little dumber than the other two, but was still a comparative genius next to the other schmoes in that film. He was, however, still easily distracted by good wood-floor panels, and his grand designs were actually about elaborate, homemade sex toys, not international espionage.
With Baird Whitlock, Clooney has graduated to a full-on dunce. Never seen out of his pteruges and sandals, Whitlock deals with his abduction with a sort of mild, innocent curiosity. He’s also quick to fall under the spell of the commies (they have cucumber finger sandwiches, after all), but one capitalist smack across the face from Mannix and he’s back at his post, ready to make movie magic.
Though I love the lunatic side of the Coens, there’s something to be said about the aching ennui found in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Hail, Caesar! is a dopey comedy, make no mistake. Still, the moments of Mannix seeking solace in a confessional have a bit of that existential angst. Why has he been so cursed as to be the only competent man at the dream factory? Why can’t he just take a normal job and be with his wife and kids? Why can’t he quit smoking? He can’t – for the same reason the Coens can deliver a script-for-hire, but never put their names on a “normal” picture. He loves playing in the sandbox.