The Coen Brothers have always been notoriously difficult directors to define. For their films don’t simply conform to stringent genre conventions. Instead they puckishly play with different concepts, regularly combining Noirish flavours with notes of screwball comedy and soulful existentialism to create an altogether more transcending whole that’s all but impossible to delineate.
Their latest escapade, Hail, Caesar!, which opened this year’s Berlinale in spirited style, is ruled by this rationale. Like the legendary general of its title, the film’s appearance is one of grandeur. This is a tribute to the Tinseltown of yesteryear, which bewitchingly captures the seductive allure of classical Hollywood cinema whilst taking an unsparing look at what life was like behind the scenes.Our guide through this world of unbridled opulence is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production and resident “fixer” at Capitol Pictures, who spends his days having to contend with a plethora of professional problems; cue a promiscuous performer (Scarlett Johansson) falling pregnant; a frustrated filmmaker (Ralph Fiennes) furious with his maladroit leading man (Alden Ehrenreich); and a pair of conniving columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, who’s clearly having a ball) each determined to dig up some dirt on Capitol’s talent. Mannix is a man committed to his faith and his family, but fundamentally he’s devoted to the success of his films.
Currently, Capitol’s biggest investment is a monumental epic entitled ‘Hail, Caesar!’, which aims to offer a conscientious telling of Christ’s story and stars one of Hollywood’s hottest talents, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). But there’s a problem, a communist cell calling itself “The Future” has kidnapped Baird, and are demanding $100,000 for his return, which Mannix, determined to retain control of the situation, dutifully plans to pay. The only person he currently has no power over, however, is Whitlock himself, who is slowly starting to recognise and sympathise with his abductor’s doctrine.In attempting to balance a lovingly sarcastic salute of the studio system with this typically confident comedic caper, Hail, Caesar! is arguably one of the Coen’s most ambitious films in terms of its range. The brothers gleefully allow you to revel in their Golden Era setting. Nancy Haigh’s superb soundstage set design is so immersive you can practically feel the heat radiating from the studio lights. And there’s indulgent fun to be found in the show-stopping Busby Berkeley dance numbers – Channing Tatum’s toe-tappingly triumphant ‘No Dames’ is a notable highlight – that are effortlessly enhanced by the energetic photography Roger Deakins, whose use of celluloid stock captures the soul of Old Hollywood through a gleaming vintage tint.
Many will undoubtedly see this as a sister film to Barton Fink (despite there being more similarities shared with both A Serious Man and The Big Lebowski). However, through lightly mocking the absurdities of the industry, Hail, Caesar! sometimes feels more like the spiritual sibling to Singin’ in the Rain; the growing frustrations of Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz, for example, hysterically mirror those of Douglas Fowley’s Roscoe Dexter.From the start though, it’s clear that the Coens never understand how to fully engage with this world that they’ve worked so hard to recreate. And once the glow of absurdist amusement fades, what’s left is an unshakable sense of aggravating ambivalence.
Particularly problematic is the sporadic nature of the plot, which struggles to condense Mannix’s various vignettes into one cohesive whole. The script, written by the directors, is so backwards in coming forwards that classic Coenesque tropes – such as the ideological dominance of Hollywood, man’s divine loyalty to faith, and the pivotal role of fate – fail to translate. This despite strong performances from the entire ensemble; Alden Ehrenreich being the surprise standout in a crowd of oft-collaborators.
For filmmakers so focused on their craft, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see the Coens loose their creative composure. A cluttered final reel suffers from tonal failures so glaring you can practically see the two siblings wrestling with whether they want Hail, Caesar! to be seen as a celebratory parody, or a cynical satire. And if they can’t even define their own work, how on earth are we meant to?