“The movie business is fascinating, but it’s also frivolous,” a schmoozing corporate stooge tells Josh Brolin’s beleaguered studio boss in the latest screwball comedy from the Coen brothers. It’s a line that helpfully sums up the movie itself: a scintillatingly off-beat spoof of cinema’s golden age that struggles to keep you consistently gripped due to a complete lack of substance.
Brolin plays a fictionalised version of Eddie Mannix, a real-life studio fixer who worked in Hollywood during the 1950s. Aside from hiding a smoking habit from his wife and wrestling with Catholic guilt, Mannix’s chief concern is cleaning up after his hapless stars – be it an unplanned pregnancy or a disgruntled director fuming at a woeful miscasting – and keeping the baying gossip columnists in the dark. But his troubles only really begin when his biggest star, George Clooney’s Kirk Douglas-esque Baird Whitlock, is drugged and bungled into the back of a van just as his latest epic, Hail, Caesar!, is nearing completion.
Though Joel and Ethan Coen have already tackled the studio system in the more surreal Barton Fink, this movie is an altogether different beast. Here, the brothers use the 50s setting as an excuse to goad a gang of game big names to cameo in a series of lavish sketches playfully sending up cinema’s golden age – an era that has nostalgia to thank for glossing over its overwhelmingly corny output.
So we get Scarlett Johansson wedged into a rubber mermaid outfit, Ralph Fiennes delivering an excruciatingly hilarious direction to his miscast singing cowboy and Channing Tatum in a screwy-sailor dance number. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton makes a superb double turn as feuding gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker – a distortion of the real-life rivalry between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
Yet it doesn’t take long to realise these supremely silly set-pieces are as frivolous as the movies they parody. There’s very little dramatic jeopardy or emotional depth beneath the superficial charms and we are never given a reason to care about the fates of any of the characters. Mannix is supposed to act as our guide through this madcap world, yet Brolin’s gruff hero is so devoid of empathy his salvage mission carries no weight. As a result, the story feels like little more than a lavishly produced sketch show.
Don’t be fooled by its wrangling over the nature of god and communism, in Hail, Caesar! there’s very little meaning behind all the glitz and glamour.
Runtime: 106 mins; Genre: Comedy; Released: 4 March 2016;
Directors and Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen;
Cast: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes
Click here to watch a trailer for Hail, Caesar!