Emperors Certain, Clothes Doubtful
I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can't call myself a fan – there's something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they're little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.
But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.
As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn't have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs' satisfaction?
I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there's the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you'd expect) highly impressive.
And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes' film director tries to coach Ehrenreich's heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.
A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I've already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren's scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).
The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg's 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I'm rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn't have the same kind of irresistible energy or cheerful lack of restraint. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there's actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I've no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.
This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn't funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking 'hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept' but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there's a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. There is much less to this film than meets the eye.