The Coen brothers’ have a soft spot for nostalgia and a strange attitude towards mythmaking. On occasions when the celebrated writer/director tag-team cast their eyes back – to a washed-up White Russian-sipping hippy in The Big Lebowski, for example, or the folky Depression Era Deep South of America in O Brother, Where Art Thou – they tend to both satirise the past and relish in its perceived idiosyncrasies.
The existence of ironic distance is unmistakable; how greatly the filmmakers are taking the piss far less so. Even in their more serious nostalgia-rimmed time warps, such as Inside Llewyn Davis’ saunter through Greenwich Village or Barton Fink’s flaky portrait of a wannabe sell-out screenwriter circa the 1940s, there’s a feeling they are reclaiming a past that never happened.
This is particularly true in the case of Hail, Caesar!, a behind-the-scenes style comedy set in and around the studio system during Golden Era Hollywood in the ’50s. Think Robert Altman’s The Player, wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of nostalgia.
Studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Chandler-esque detective-like figure with a professional obligation to stay two steps ahead of his colleagues and associates. The many people who come and go, landing themselves or him in various spots of bother, include stars, producers, directors and journalists.
Mannix also resembles Winston Wolfe or Michael Clayton in the sense he’s a brilliant problem solver. The film takes place at a time when Hollywood actors were locked into long-term exclusive contracts and the studios micro-managed their lives (or at least their public image).
Starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who is headlining an opulent Busby Berkeley-like production (complete with synchronised swimmers and shimmery mermaid costume) is pregnant and unmarried, thus requiring some spin and attention. Mannix has to fend off snoopy journalists, two in particular: a pair of highly strung identical twins both played by Tilda Swinton.
But the lion’s share of his troubles has to do with the studio’s marquee production, a bigger-than-Ben-Hur biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! The star of the picture, uber-celebrity Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped at a crucial point in the shoot. Mannix is handed a six figure ransom request from a band of scofflaws who mysteriously call themselves ‘The Future’.
They aren’t exactly rough-as-guts goons: they’re intellectuals and, more specifically, communists. Whitlock behaves as we imagine a star like Cary Grant might have even when the cameras weren’t rolling. He’s gregarious, charismatic to a fault and ideologically malleable — the sort of person who might convert to any cause after a night of martini-infused chin-wagging.
It helps to have an understanding of Hollywood Golden Era history to appreciate several of Hail, Caesar’s digressions, including a reflection of how studio’s dealt with closeted gay stars and meddlesome media. The communist tangent, which takes the mickey out of a period recently explored in Trumbo, is so lightheartedly jokey it feels blunted and obtuse. Whitlock awakens in the commie “lair” (actually an expensive modern cliff-facing house) to find himself embroiled in intellectual parlour games: long polite yaks complete with cucumber sandwiches on toothpicks.
Hail, Caesar! similarly stays in a safe space. The pace and tempo never really catch on and its momentum feels oddly slack for a Coen venture (the adorable haziness and sleepy rhythms of The Big Lebowski notwithstanding). A clearer focus on Mannix and his day-to-day grind might have sharpened the story; the film feels like a rather splotchy collection of vignettes – some chunky and recurring and others short-lived one-offs.
Several are quite lovely, though, particularly when we detour to visions of productions on the lot. Observing the grace of Scarlett Johansson and the synchronised swimmers, then hearing (when the cameras switch off) her loud-mouthed character grouse through a thick Jersey accent provides a delicious contrast.
It’s this sort of backstage perspective the Coens clearly love playing around with. The scene is a rare moment when Hail, Caesar! efficiently double-loads its most compelling impulses: embellishing the past then pricking the bubble of nostalgia. Mostly the film is pleasant enough pap — a soft, even toothless hat-tip to Hollywood’s dreamy days of yonder year.