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Film review: Hail Caesar! ***

By Preston Wilder

The man who wasn’t there in The Man Who Wasn’t There is God. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is Death himself (“You can’t stop what’s coming!”). Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about Death. O Brother Where Art Thou is a tale of a religious conversion. Almost all the films by the Coen brothers have a semi-hidden layer, often derived from religion and spirituality – and their latest, the Hollywood comedy Hail Caesar!, fits the pattern, indeed its ‘other’ layer is even more obvious than usual. The problem, oddly, is the surface layer – the actual procession of jokes, plot turns and bits of business – which is uninspired, by the Coens’ high standards.

The setting is early-50s Hollywood, and our hero is Eddie Mannix – the real-life name of a real-life ‘fixer’ who kept the sordid lives of MGM stars out of the glare of publicity back in the day, but played by Josh Brolin as a harried, well-meaning, more benign figure. Eddie’s problems include Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a barely-articulate cowboy star who’s been assigned to a drawing-room comedy, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a bathing beauty who’s unmarried and pregnant – and especially Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped by Communist writers while starring in the sword-and-sandal epic Hail, Caesar!. That film is subtitled A Tale of the Christ, like the 1959 Ben Hur, though its plot – a Roman centurion finds Jesus – recalls The Robe, from 1953. Similarly, DeeAnna is clearly Esther Williams, Hobie is probably Roy Rogers, and Channing Tatum does a dancing-sailor number that obviously channels Gene Kelly. There’s a lot for old-movie fans to enjoy in Hail, Caesar!.

That’s not all, however – because Eddie is also a Catholic, going near-obsessively to confession, and his irrational devotion to the movie business (he’s already got a much better offer from an aviation company) is a lot like his devotion to religion. Hollywood, after all, is the ‘dream factory’, manufacturing balm for weary souls. “It’s all make-believe,” scoffs the aviation guy, and later on we hear that “People don’t want the facts, they want to believe” – both statements that could be applied to religion as well as movies. The final act makes this explicit, with Eddie exploding when Baird claims there’s no “spiritual dimension” to films. Faith is the stumbling-block, literally so when Baird delivers his big speech and stumbles over the word ‘faith’ – but also metaphorically. Eddie has faith.

The Coens haven’t necessarily found Jesus, though (a scene where Eddie consults a selection of priests makes it clear that men of the cloth have no idea what they’re talking about) – because Communism too has a lot in common with religion. Baird’s kidnappers talk of a split between body and brain (workers vs. bosses), just as Christianity splits body and spirit. “It’s science!” claim the Commies, calling themselves ‘The Future’ – but in fact they’re just another system of faith and conversion, and quite movie-like too: when a Soviet sub emerges from the ocean, it does so in the style of Esther Williams. Ultimately, Hail, Caesar! is about the human need to believe in something not quite rational – and it works as the Coens’ love letter to Cinema, precisely because they include movies in that exalted company.

All well and good; the problem is the actual film qua film, which tends to just sit there for long, laboured stretches. With one obvious exception – a clip-worthy bit where Hobie and his posh British director (Ralph Fiennes, probably doing James Whale) try to find common ground on the line “Would that it were so simple” – the script is droll rather than hilarious. The plot lacks momentum, getting dispersed between sub-plots and tangents like that Gene Kelly number. The all-star cast doesn’t get much to do, with Tilda Swinton especially under-used as identical-twin gossip columnists.

Above all, this may be the first edge-free Coens film. Usually they throw something acrid or outrageous in the mix, whether bad language or shocking bits of violence (even O Brother had John Goodman’s thuggish Cyclops), but Hail, Caesar! is safe, even snoozy, on a par with the constant euphemisms – “protégé” to mean ‘gay lover’ – that were Hollywood currency at the time. Not that every film has to be edgy, of course. Ethan, the younger Coen, turns 60 next year, and there’s really no reason why a couple of middle-aged guys should be in sync with the unforgiving youth audience. I can see them turning into grumpy old men in the next few years, increasingly viewed as conservative (they’ve been scathing in interviews when journalists ask why there aren’t more minority characters in Hail, Caesar!, Joel calling the question “idiotic”). They may even become uncool, after a lifetime of cool – yet I’m positive they’ll keep making movies, as they’ve done for the past 30 years. It’s their religion.

 

DIRECTED BY Joel and Ethan Coen

STARRING Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich

US 2016              106 mins

 

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