No matter how you consume cinema, you can’t ever doubt its artifice. Some people choose to use the movies as a way to escape the trivialities of their comparatively dull lives whilst others embrace it passionately and let it consume them. Either way, movies are a false dawn, an interruption, a way for us to punctuate our lives with new horizons without having to commit. The Coen Bros, modern masters of the craft, know this and their new film, Hail, Caesar!, questions, with often hilarious results, why we are trying to escape reality so often when it can be just as important as the movies.
The framework for this exploration is typical of the two brothers’ previous works in that it isn’t really typical at all. Our eyes into the machinations of fifties Hollywood is Eddie Mannix (played with great sympathy by the perpetually emerging Josh Brolin), a hard-nosed, no-nonsense publicist/fixer for the stars, who spends his day careering around the California landscape, doing his best to keep the greatest show on earth running as smoothly as the heavens. When his biggest star, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, is kidnapped by a mysterious organisation calling themselves ‘The Future’, Mannix finds his day unraveling one actor at a time.
This ‘day-in-the-life’ screwball comedy, full to the brim of eccentric, clownish characters who seem hell bent on bringing Mannix down to his knees, is structured in such a way that modern audiences may find it frustrating and contrived. More of a series of vignettes anchored by a central character, the film jumps around at such a pace that you never feel truly in tune with any of the numerous tales spun by the ever-challenging brothers in their script. Be it Scarlett Johansson’s gorgeous but spiteful actress and her quest to find a husband or the struggle of a western star to find his voice in a dialogue-driven industry, the characters are moved like pieces in a drunken chess game. Unlike the equally esoteric but more natural Big Lebowski, they are highly self aware and, much like the Coen’s version of Hollywood, incredibly artificial.
It is a good job, then, that the Coens have made a very, very funny film. With their usual collection of unique sight gags (Clooney spending the whole running time in Roman garb is a killer), playful barbs at religion’s stranglehold on the industry (fortified by a great cameo from Robert Picardo as a mean-spirited Rabbi) and snappy dialogue that seems purpose-built for each actor (take a bow, Ralph Fiennes), there is plenty of room in the muddled story for that brand of humour that nobody else seems able to replicate but these two. It is a both a shame and a delight that the story is left to fall by the wayside in favour of small moments of joyousness, exemplified by watching the excellent Alden Ehrenreich, the only genuine person in the film, toy with his lasso as he waits for his date. This is an actor’s movie, in so many ways, sometimes to the detriment of any polished narrative.
Even if you find it difficult to appreciate the multi-genre mess that the Coens seem to have vomited out of their system, for lack of a better phrase, it is easy to appreciate the work done by Hollywood mainstay and cinematographer supreme, Roger Deakins. The film looks glorious from beginning to end and, with so many golden-era Hollywood styles to replicate (the musical, the sublime Busby Berkley-esque water ballet and the mind-bendingly authentic Technicolor western), Deakins must have been working overtime because he nails them all and still has time to subtly make the scenes outside the studio look just as fake. Without him working on this film, the Coens might have seen their delicate alternate universe fall apart at the seams.
This less-than-sturdy narrative isn’t exactly new to fans of the filmmakers. The Big Lebowski, in great noir tradition, isn’t supposed to make sense and again here, the convolution just adds to the amusement. But more importantly than this, the Coens seem to want to draw attention to the false, confusing paradise of Hollywood and how it exists within its own bubble. In a Universe where our movie stars don’t exist, the Coens have built their own fantasy kingdom and employed Mannix as its gatekeeper. The eponymous film within the film (interestingly both are narrated by the same voice), speaks about “that edifice wrought of brick and blood” when describing ancient Rome but could just as easily be describing the studio system, where actors and actresses were owned like slaves. This is brought full circle when Mannix says, towards the end of the film, “You have worth if you save the picture!” Despite being offered better jobs from “a business, not a circus” this is where he belongs, shouldering the sins of his people and doing right by his kingdom. It is this religious fervor with which Mannix does his job that makes up for any closure elsewhere and leaves you grinning, but unsure of what The Future holds. In this realm or any other.
Hail, Caesar! was released in UK cinemas on March 4 2016