An entertainingly ingenious genre-buster from the ingenious Coen brothers. It’s basically a comedy – I think – but it’s also a political satire which both sends up and pays homage to the golden age of Hollywood – the age of corny westerns, singing cowboys, sword-and-sandal epics, noirish drawing-room dramas, Busby Berkeley aquatic spectaculars and sailors-on-furlough dance musicals.
I had feared it might be too smart and post-modern for its own good, but it wasn’t. Nor was the profusion of genres confusing or messy.
The story is set in the fictional Capitol Studios, which happens to be making one of each of the above-listed types of movie. Some of the leading actors in these movies are involved in the bigger picture story happening at the studio and involving stars, extras, writers, stuntmen, gofers, gossip columnists, and most importantly the studio boss – an interesting character (played by Josh Brolin) who starts out looking and sounding like your typical hard-bitten badass studio exec but turns out to be a devout Catholic whose conscience troubles him over such petty sins as lying to his wife about sneaking the odd cigarette when he’s supposed to have quit.
He does have more important things to worry about: the disappearance of the studio’s number one matinee idol from the set of Hail Caesar being top of the list. George Clooney proves once again that he’s not up himself and has the comic smarts to play a rather dumb beefcake kidnapped and held to ransom by a gang of communist writers led by ‘Professor Marcuse’ who’s come to Hollywood to be their mentor.
How curious that there should be two movies released at the same time on this theme of communist writers in 50s Hollywood. Trumbo plays it straight, as we have seen, but the approach of the Coen brothers is something quite different: it doesn’t trivialise, but it does manage to be sophisticated, funny and serious at the same time.
The story’s setting in a movie studio allows the moviemakers to show us the singing, swimming, dancing and stunt routines in full, as part of the action of the story. What a treat to see these highly-polished performances up close and virtually live, as studio insiders would have, rather than as chopped-up grainy old documentary footage, which is more usual for us denizens of the 21st century.
I think this is my favourite ever Coen Brothers movie. Although I did love Intolerable Cruelty too – it also had Gorgeous George in it, which helped.
This review was first published to Facebook on 3.3.2016