For the most part, Hail Caesar is a loving and masterfully constructed pastiche of old ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood and the films and stars it spawned. From Tilda Swinton playing identical twins, both of whom are essentially Hedda Hopper, to the grand scale of the eponymous film-within-a-film, the Coens craft a sincere yet ludicrous tribute to the movie industry of the ‘50s. Yet, beneath this glorious veneer lies a philosophical treatise on religion, politics, and the value of story-telling itself. Combining the absurd with the profound is a Coen specialty, and it’s pulled off with tremendous style in Hail Caesar, helped along by a magnificent and very game cast.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a God-fearing ‘fixer’ for Capitol Pictures. He keeps the studio’s stars in line and manages the press, making sure that scandals stay under wraps. His current charges are marrying off pregnant actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and changing the image of singing cowboy Hoby Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), but these tasks are forced to the back of his mind by the kidnap of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock, a classic Coen/Clooney moron, is the world-famous superstar currently starring in the flagship film for Capitol Pictures, before being carted off by a mysterious group.
This overarching plot is not of fundamental importance to Hail Caesar, generally taking a backseat to one of many sub-stories. There are production troubles on the latest film from arthouse director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) and Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both Swinton) are threatening to revitalise an old and salacious story about Whitlock. As should be obvious by now, Hail Caesar sees the Coens display a total mastery of funny names, with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney and a few more that I don’t want to spoil joining those already listed. Every subplot, even those as tiny as the one involving Jonah Hill, is packed with laughs and invention, with near-perfect pacing meaning you don’t want to look away for a single second.
The Coens have assembled a magisterial set of actors here, and they’re clearly having a fantastic time playing a group of very silly people. Plenty of the ‘main’ cast, like Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill, only pop up for what amounts to extended cameos, but they make great use of all the time they have. Brolin combines charm and menace as Mannix with Fiennes continuing in the rich comic vein that has been serving him so well over the last couple of years. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich all but steals the show from his more illustrious co-stars as a lovable idiot savant – Hoby can’t get complex dialogue out, but he can dazzle with love songs and ridiculous lasso moves, one particular trick at a fancy dinner a proper ‘how’d he manage that’ feat.
Hail Caesar displays the full extent of the Coens’ love for cinema, even while it gently mocks it, and the best examples of that come from the movies being produced within this film’s universe. We get to see Merrily We Dance, Laurence Lorenz’s new black and white piece, Hail, Caesar! itself, looking suitably lavish, an underwater musical number led by Johansson’s DeeAnna, and a truly astonishing tap-dance sequence.
Playing a dancing sailor about to ship out, Tatum’s Burt Gurney leads this incredible display, both winking at the old musicals of the ‘50s and sincerely recreating their very best moments. Sliding across the bar counter and dancing on tables as the tablecloths are pulled away, it’s the standout moment of a film bursting with wonderful ideas and visuals. Hail Caesar understands the strengths of its all-star cast better than almost any other film in recent memory, allowing a collection of Hollywood’s top talent to be at their magnetic best.
Of the leads, only Mannix and Hoby really get to develop as properly human characters, but everyone else is so enjoyable to watch that it hardly matters. Brolin’s relationship with the Coens has thus far proved very fruitful, with No Country For Old Men, True Grit, and now this latest masterpiece, whilst Ehrenreich should, if there’s any justice, swiftly become one of the most sought-after young actors (he’s rumoured to be in the running for young Han Solo). Laugh out loud funny, brilliantly clever and thoughtful, and an endless joy to watch, Hail Caesar is the first truly unmissable film of 2016.