Friday, 11 March 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Lifting the lid on the dream factory, this Coen brothers’ film is great fun, if you get it

Written by Jason Solomons
Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176Affection is not something the Coen brothers dish out at random. If their films have a heart, it’s a black one. So their latest concoction is both typical and a strange departure, just the sort of oxymoron in which these siblings take perverse pleasure. Hail, Caesar! is a tribute to old Hollywood, a loving pastiche of the 1950s studio system and a bitter critique of it.

The Coens know their Hollywood stuff. They’ve been on this territory before, with 1991’s Barton Fink, but this time they weave in one of their shaggy-dog kidnap plots (see The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Inside Llewyn Davis) and again take their title from the title of a film within a film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? came from a film in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels; Hail, Caesar! is the Ben Hur-like film George Clooney’s making here.

At the centre of it all, Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, ‘Head of Physical Production’ at Capitol Pictures Studio. He’s essentially a fixer who smooths out the wrinkles, makes the gossip go away, sorts out wayward stars. Much in this film has real-life roots, including Mannix himself.

Scarlett Johansson, for instance, plays a swimming starlet called DeeAnna Moran, modelled on Esther Williams but with the troubled personal life of Loretta Young. Tilda Swinton plays both twins, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, rival gossip columnists – modelled perhaps on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Those who know Hollywood lore will luxuriate in a bath of references. Clooney’s chiselled yet slightly dim star, Baird Whitlock, gets kidnapped – by Communist screenwriters, it turns out – from the set of his Roman epic and spends the rest of the movie bumbling about in centurion garb.

There’s a wholesome teen idol cowboy called Hobie Doyle, sweetly played by Alden Ehrenreich, whom the studio is trying out in a sophisticated drama called Merrily We Dance, directed by self-styled auteur director Laurence Laurentz, gleefully played by Ralph Fiennes. There’s a lovely moment when Hobie is forced, by Eddie, to take a Carmen Miranda-type date to his premiere. ‘It’s all in the hips and the lips and the eyes and the thighs,’ she trills, wiggling her handbag on her head.

Best of all is the Gene Kelly-style hoofer played by Channing Tatum, whom we see in a gloriously camp number called No Dames, featuring sailors tap-dancing on tables in a bar whose design is straight out of the 1948 film Words And Music.

All of these nods and winks are fine as far as it goes. I loved, for instance, the brief scene with Frances McDormand getting her scarf caught in an old Moviola machine. Such are the bizarre events that form part of a normal day in Eddie’s life. To quote Airplane! (another movie spoof) it looks like he picked the wrong week to give up smoking. Indeed, Eddie’s struggles to quit drive him to late-night confessions at church, ushering in a religious theme that gives the film a disquieting and maybe disingenuous depth. What does it all mean? Isn’t it meaning itself that he’s searching for? He’d do well to find it in Hollywood.

Perhaps that’s what this puzzle of a picture is really about – the lies of the movies, and the lengths we go to to make sure the secrets remain buried so that we can believe in something completely fabricated.

Lifting the lid on the dream factory, Hail, Caesar! is funny, then, if you get it. I suspect that if you don’t, you might sit there scratching your head at best, feeling alienated and bored at worst. Coen brothers’ movies can do that. There aren’t jokes and punchlines. Instead there are digs and nudges, smirks and eyebrow waggles. Perhaps the biggest star is the Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who gets to light scenes in nearly every cinematic style under the sun – or under the studio hangar roof. It’s that sort of film – love it, by all means, but don’t trust it.



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