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Arts | By Marcus Berkmann

Film within a film: George Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Marcus Berkmann on Hail, Caesar! and Triple 9

Hail, Caesar! (12A)

Triple 9 (15) 

So much film, now, is so anonymous, so manufactured rather than created, that we should probably feel grateful for the few quirky talents out there who are still allowed to do their own thing. The downside of quirkiness, though, is inconsistency. For every decent Woody Allen film, there will be two or three stinkers. And I’m beginning to get a little worried about Joel and Ethan Coen, who are still bashing out the films at a decent rate, but no longer quite reaching the heights of Fargo (1996), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or No Country For Old Men (2007). Have we grown too familiar with their schtick? Or have they just gone off the boil?

Hail, Caesar! (12A) is a typically skewed love letter to 1950s Hollywood, in that you’re never entirely sure whether they love what they are portraying, or hate it, or possibly both. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer (and the only character in the film named after a real person). Like many Coen protagonists he’s a worried man, overworked, under pressure from every direction and temptingly being offered a proper job with Lockheed, the aircraft manufacturers. The films his studio is making, by contrast, are self-evidently ridiculous. There’s a Roman epic (the aforementioned Hail, Caesar!) starring George Clooney, giving us his vain numbskull routine; an Esther Williams-style mermaid spectacular with Scarlett Johansson; a hokey old western with Audie Murphy-lookalike Alden Ehrenreich; a camp musical comedy full of sailors, with Channing Tatum; and a Noël Coward-ish drawing-room drama directed by Ralph Fiennes. The joke is that these films are all obviously terrible, but the joke on top of the joke is that, as shot by the Coens’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, the films look glorious, far more sumptuous and colourful than the originals they are parodying ever did, or could have done.

The main thread of the plot, though, is the kidnap of Clooney’s character by a group of what turn out to be communist screenwriters. How strange it is, a few weeks after the more serious and intense Trumbo, to see the same scenario played for laughs. (The screenwriters have as their leader an old Jewish professor played by our own John Bluthal, a wonderful off-piste bit of casting.) Poor old Brolin has to solve this problem among many others, and somehow resist the bullying of twin gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton. It’s a rich mixture, and at times you almost feel that there is too much going on. My guess is that the film’s textures and some of its more abstruse filmmaking jokes are probably best appreciated on a second viewing, which is all very well, but most people go and see a film once and it needs to work for them as well. I did laugh a lot, particularly at Clooney and Swinton, but I also left the cinema feeling vaguely dissatisfied. It may be that, for all the magic of old cinema they evoke, the Coens haven’t managed to infuse enough of their own, more particular magic.

Still, it’s a thousand times better than Triple 9 (15), one of those films about corrupt policemen in excessively hot US cities that tries too hard to trump all previous films in the genre. What a cast! Here’s Chiwetel Ejiofor chewing a wasp, there’s Kate Winslet as a big-haired Russian gangster, and Woody Harrelson chewing several more wasps as the decent old cop who will get killed at the end. In fact, everyone gets killed at the end. You have never seen as great a waste of time, money and human energy in your life. 

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now