Completing the numbskull trilogy comprising of Oh Brother Where art Thou and The Big Lebowski, Hail Caesar! features many of the same absurdist tropes as its two predecessors, proving itself a quintessentially Coen brothers Screwball caper, albeit not of the same standard of genius as one might come to take for granted from the duo.
George Clooney is Baird Whitlock, the star of Captiol pictures’ tentpole of the year, Hail Caesar who finds himself kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters. Following this day of peril in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), we are invited to take a tour of Hollywood circa 1951, as Mannix encounters a cast of oddball characters played by an all star cast that features the likes of Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johanssen, Channing Tatum and Dolph Lundregen.
It’s here that one can place the ‘classic Coen brothers’ moniker onto Caesar. Characters of almost competing strangeness are embroiled in what becomes a controlled chaos of increasingly ridiculous events, placed in an environment of eerie social standings and political sensibility. As it has been put many a time before, the feeling most commonly associated with a Coen brothers picture is something of a confusion between whether to laugh or wince. Caesar proves no exception to the rule, with Brolin’s Mannix fitting nicely into the pantheon of dubiously conflicted characters the brothers have fostered over the years. Mannix, a man whose job at the studios is to keep the prying eyes of the paparazzi (who in the movie takes the form of Tilda Swinton’s exceedingly excellent twin sisters) away, or rather distracted from the nefarious activities of his contractors he must keep in line, wrestles a smoking problem to the extent that he must go to confession for lying about it to his wife. On the job however, Mannix is a machine of precision and immediacy, flitting around the factory-like studio lot like a damage control agent, a man looked at with both a sense of fear and fatherliness by his stars. Brolin inhabits the role with a straightness that rings a familiar tone to his role as ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornson in 2014’s Inherent Vice. He’s excellent here, commanding the screen with a surprisingly nuanced physical presence that perfectly underlies the ‘fake’ atmosphere of Hollywoods golden age.
With Brolin anchoring it firmly, the film plays with the strands of 1950’s Hollywood with a gleeful, cynical smile; mining its comedy from the depths of a shackled studio system at the peak of its powers. The communist writers, bearing some degree of truth to the blacklisting of the time, are presented as caricatures that one can’t help but laugh at, even if their message is one of striking pertinence to movies today as much as it was sixty years ago. This is the serious message of the film if there is one, that is treated with the very feeling familiar of other pictures from the brothers. It’s brilliant, and by the time the final third of the film is reached, the insanity of what takes place is somehow felt as a natural progression of the story rather than an irrational bout of madness. It’s to the Coens’ credit that they can create here a world that fits into every stereotype of its era, whilst at the same time seeming outrageously hilarious and thoughtfully realised.
The cinematography from Roger Deakins captures the irony of the film deliciously, presenting the excess of its surroundings without making them seductive. It’s a world of contradictions andmisplaced moral values- a world that’s responsibility is to deliver a product that’s every bit as disingenuous as the culture it’s a reflection of.
For all of its brilliance however, Hail Caesar! doesn’t belong in the company of the Coens’ elite, but this is no criticism when this elite includes some of the best films in American cinema of the past 25 years. It’s only problem is that it plays out like a picture of formula, even if that formula happens to be intrinsically genius. There is the unshakable feeling of knowing the film will collapse inevitably into the kind of high order mess where Coen brother comedies tend to end up. But maybe this is all part of a wider critique of the Hollywood that the film is ultimately aimed at. Maybe it’s not. All in all, Hail Caesar is as good a comedy as we’re likely to see in 2016. It brims with cleverness, wit and top drawer humour, the kind of inventive comedy that Capitol pictures would surely never allow.