As lauded as the Coen brothers are, they’re sometimes too insular for their own good, frequently delivering movies that feel like private jokes to which we’re not always invited to share the punchlines.
Hail Ceasar! | Rating: ***
Hail Caesar!, which receives its UK premiere at tonight’s Glasgow Film Festival opening Gala, falls into this trap – and yet it also displays flashes of brilliance that remind you why the Coens remains so revered.
Set in Hollywood in the early 1950s, just as the studio system is starting to wane, the film offers a lampooning look at Tinsel Town amid increasingly hard-to-contain controversies, the Red Scare, bone-headed creative decisions and ever-more naked profiteering. Its hero is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer loosely inspired by the real-life MGM fixer of the same name. As the film opens he’s about to embark on a hectic 27 hours protecting various stars from about-to-break scandals, dealing with myriad production woes, trying to fend off the duel attentions of a pair of twin Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton), and trying to get to the bottom of why a group of Communist screenwriters have kidnapped his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from the set of the titular religious epic.
This, the film suggests, is a pretty typical day. Accordingly the movie is awash with absurdity and precision-engineered gags designed to poke fun at the fact that none of this strays too far from the realities of La-La Land. Alas, while this raises a wry smile, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans as a film. Digressions that explore the ethics of capitalism, the ideological power of movies, or the rampant exploitation of those hired to export certain aspirations to the public at large via the big screen, aren’t tied to anything cohesive and there remains a suspicion that the episodic plot is really just a way for the Coens to indulge their undeniable love of old Hollywood.
That, however, happens to be the film’s saving grace. In these risk-averse times it’s hard not to delight in their willingness to mount full-scale Busby Berkley-style musical numbers featuring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid or Channing Tatum as a sailor tap-dancing on tables during a risqué song-and-dance number.
It certainly reaffirms faith in the Coens’ abilities, even as the film as a whole forces you to call them into question. Which in the irony-drenched logic of the Coen brothers’ world might just be enough.