Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
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“Would that it were so simple.” It takes no end of skill to make six words side-splittingly hilarious. Hail, Caesar!, the latest from the Coen brothers, makes it look all too easy. That’s true of most of their work, as the duo skate between existential Westerns and melancholic gangsters, incompetent secret agents and bumbling country singers, with a lightness of touch that can often be underrated. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to rank their movies; they’re all different, but they’re almost all equally brilliant.
After the downbeat Inside Llewyn Davis and relatively serious Bridge of Spies, Hail, Caesar! feels like the filmakers relaxing with some light relief. We begin our tale in a car at night with film industry fixer Eddie Mannis (Brolin), as he busts in on an actress doing some clandestine work on the side. But this is no scathing expose or biting satire of La-La land; this is upbeat entertainment that enjoys the farcical, knockabout nature of the biz. This is like the B-side to Barton Fink – a cinematic apéritif with extra fizz.
Liberally dishing up the froth is a bubbly cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, as a dancer in search of a husband, Channing Tatum, as a Fred Astaire-a-like performer, and Tilda Swinton, as two identical twin sisters, who spend their time chasing the latest gossip for their rival newspaper columns. Out of nowhere, some actual news does emerge: the A-lister in the titular Biblical flick (the excellently named Baird Whitlock) is kidnapped by some extras, who may or may not have ties to a Communist uprising keen to claim their own stake of the blockbuster profits.
George Clooney is having the time of his life as Baird, wearing sandals, a sword and a short Centurion uniform – a get-up perfectly completed by a gleaming grin and a gormless stare. Clooney loves mugging for the camera and the Coens know it, giving him line after line of over-the-top stupidity to recite with knowing ham. Channing Tatum, meanwhile, is classy as ever in a sailor’s uniform, tap-dancing across restaurant tables – a sequence that’s shot by the Coens in luxurious, long takes, to highlight his old-school agility.
Best of all, though, is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the resident Western showman, who can make a lassoo out of anything at a moment’s notice – while riding a horse upside down. Ehrenreich has just been cast as Han Solo and you can see why: he oozes charisma as Hobie, playing dumb enough to be likeable but never enough to be annoying, even as he fails to close a door, walk across a room and sit down, much to director Laurence Laurentz’s (Ralph Fiennes) annoyance. Fiennes, who has been on an astonishing roll of comic turns of late, is deliciously clipped, as he orders his lunking lead about. Together, the pair deliver the funniest gag in the whole film.
Brolin plays his part straight, bouncing between each idiotic subplot with grit and a grim smile. (One scene sees him surrounded by religious clerics giving their feedback on the eponymous epic, a conversation that descends into the kind of absurd, intellectual wit the Coens can craft in their sleep: “God is angry,” says a Rabbi. “No, he used to be angry,” adds a Christian. “What, he got over it?” comes the reply.)
This is wafer-thin stuff that may disappoint fans of the Coens’ more substantial efforts, but unlike the recent Trumbo – a heavy-handed, hammy souffle – this pastiche of period movie-making is too busy having fun with submarines and dogs too worry about being anything weightier. Like Burn After Reading, though, there’s a sting in the tail, albeit a sugary one; over the gay 100 minutes, what emerges is a study of a man who’s willing to tolerate the madness and superficiality around him, because he believes in what it accomplishes: escapism, pure and simple. Look around at the world today, with its Brexits, Trumps, refugees and conflicts, and it’s hard not to find value in something that exists purely to entertain. The result is a golden slice of gloriously old-fashioned fun. Where does it rank in the Coens’ back catalogue? Would that it were so simple.
Hail, Caesar! is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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