It couldn’t have been easy for the Coen brothers to just be silly again, especially after such recent soulful triumphs like ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013) and ‘A Serious Man’ (2009) – both of which followed their big Oscar win for the dark, brooding ‘No Country for Old Men’. But you’ve got to love Joel and Ethan Coen for insisting on being playful: their new movie ‘Hail, Caesar!’ weds the backstage Hollywood shenanigans of their 1991 gem ‘Barton Fink’ to a more manic pace. It doesn’t exactly feel new for them. Yet, as super-polished, mannered and slightly surreal comedies go, it feels as rare as a unicorn.
As ever with these siblings, it’s the details that win us over. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is set within the unusually rich seam of transitional early-1950s showbiz, a moment when swimming sirens (Scarlett Johansson) and singing cowboys (Alden Ehrenreich, deceptively sharp under his ten-gallon hat) rubbed elbows with finicky European directors (Ralph Fiennes, extending his sublime comic run from ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) and secret Communist ‘study groups’. At the top of the food chain is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Kirk Douglas-like A-lister who’s been drugged and smuggled off the lot of his epic Roman picture. Enter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s fixer, worried about the fallout.
The plot never runs out of steam. But you’ll soon see the story as a handy excuse for dazzling bits of business: a strand of spaghetti turned into a lasso; an excruciatingly funny piece of on-set dialogue direction (some cowboys will never become urbane smoothies); and Channing Tatum in a screwy-sailor dance number that plays like a reason to make the film. Purring over it all is that great wizard Michael Gambon, whose stuffy, orotund narration supplies a self-mockery that’s our cue not to take any of this very seriously. Is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, occasionally seen in a church confession box, actually in pursuit of something higher than all this? Don’t be fooled by the backdrop.