Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail Caesar! is a playful romp through Hollywood’s “golden age”—a deliberately vague time and idea in the film.
Egos and cigars are huge and studio backlots are filled with armies of extras and half built Roman cities.
It delights in a loving pastiche of genres—from westerns to Busby Berkeley-style synchronised swimming. The movie flaunts its let’s-put-on-a-show scrappiness, as the Coens display the work required to produce a film.
Beneath glitzy nostalgia, the film flirts with a time when Hollywood incubated two supposed threats to the US’s perceived domestic bliss—Communism and homosexuality.
There are plenty of movies about movies, but here Cold War tragedy is a remake of a farce.
A “study group” of radical writers, dubbing themselves “The Future,” argue bad Marxism. They drug and kidnap Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). They are led by actor Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who arrives in a fabulous On the Town/Anchors Aweigh-style musical number No Dames.
The Coen brothers churn up the history and untruth in the sideshow that is the plot—but no matter.
This film is about the sheen of the screen and the sleazy, greedy, compromised mess behind the scenes. Identical journalists circle for scandal. A bumbling actor delivers a populist religious aside written by a Communist. A singing cowboy will eventually come to his rescue.
The Coens’ films often place someone struggling to do the right thing in a maddening world. Here our hero is Capitol Picture studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). In real life—and a little bit in the film—he was a complete shit.
He confesses his private sins to his local Catholic priest, but his public crimes are more unconscionable.
The film plays and plays again—for the hell of it—with Hollywood tropes.
The mashed up movie references are more about giving general sense of place than trainspotting. The scandals covered up are real Hollywood legends. And the showy cinematography is better than just recreation.
It is Capitol Pictures versus Kapital—“with a K”, as Clooney puts it.
Their dreams are crushed, propped up and made glorious. Hail, Caesar! is a trifle nostalgic, but who isn’t nostalgic for trifle? And can any Socialist Worker reader really not want to see a film where a gay Communist kidnaps George Clooney and then gives up a fortune to save a dog called Engels?
Directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen