The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen is a hilarious tribute to 1950s Hollywood. It’s not so much an orthodox film – nor, with acknowledgement to a wonderful scene involving a four-way religious argument, a Greek Orthodox one – as a sequence of cameos pulled together, just, around the kidnap of the star actor in Hail, Caesar! (which itself is a film within the film), played by George Clooney.
George, as the lumpen Hollywood leading man Baird Whitlock, looks gorgeous, this even though he’s in the same clothes the whole time, which – Roman fashion being what it was – means he’s basically in a skirt the whole time. He gets kidnapped by a bunch of writers, disillusioned about how poorly they are rewarded for their work by the film industry; they bring the communism element to proceedings. It’s the job of the guy who runs Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), to get Baird back on set so the film can be concluded before the studio goes bust.
It’s not giving too much away – watching this is a great means of passing 100 minutes but I’m not sure that it merits use of the word ‘plot’ – to reveal that George does indeed return to finish off the job, addressing his audience on Calvary in front of Christ on the cross with some profoundly moving words before unfortunately forgetting the ending. The Coens here had to have been inspired (surely?) by the anecdote, probably apocryphal, about John Wayne in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Wayne is asked by the director to inject a bit more awe into his voice when saying: “He really was the Son of God.” Which he duly does – “Aw, he really was the Son of God.”
This being a film studio, Mannix has more than one movie on the go. Ralph Fiennes is terrific as a director trying in vain to get a cowboy actor to say a simple sentence, whereas the guy is absolute genius with a lasso in his hand. Also transferring over from A Bigger Splash along with Fiennes is Tilda Swinton, who has two parts, as equally annoying twin gossip hacks. Elsewhere, Channing Tatum’s mega-camp tap-dancing sequence is stunning. There’s a scene in which a submarine emerges from the depths of the ocean, which is almost as impressive as Scarlett Johansson doing likewise from the swimming pool in her role as a mermaid, in the style of a Busby Berkeley production, although the dazzling Scarlett effect is tempered by her magnificently scuzzy accent as she bemoans having to wear a “fish-ass” costume for her role and about her life in general.
Mannix’s two awkward meetings with a creep from Lockheed who’s trying to lure him from film into aviation look suspiciously like they were shot in the same restaurant booth as the first arranged meeting between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol, though surely Hollywood can’t be that broke? Mannix’s two meetings with a priest in the confessional don’t go much better but they get across the point that behind all the bluster and the showmanship, the deals and the glamour, he is a man trying to do the right thing for his family and his employees. And we have a lot of fun watching him do that.