If you've ever wanted to watch Channing Tatum in full naval garb as the lead in a raucously energetic tap-dancing musical, now you can — sort of. With Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers have made the latest in a long line of works in which they mercilessly goad their audience. In this case, they've made a film about a series of movies we're never allowed to see. Other cinematic masterpieces we're only given the slightest glimpse of include Alden Ehrenreich as a young snarling cowboy and Scarlett Johannson as a mermaid in an aqua-balletic box office masterpiece.
Now 61 and 58 years old respectively, Joel and Ethan have specialised for three decades in red herrings and hoodwinking escapades — in films about failed kidnaps, botched betrayals and futile quests for purpose in a cruel, meaningless world. They keep us at bay, hold us at arm's length: plot twists, narrative entanglements, catastrophes that happen but don't.
To watch the Coens' oeuvre from the beginning is to feel teased, taunted and manipulated. In Sam Raimi's 1985 film Crimewave, which the Coens wrote, we begin with the most final act of all: a state execution, death by electric chair — a fate that, following a film-long flashback, doesn't actually come to fruition. The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens' 1994 take on corporate America, begins with Tim Robbins leaping from a skyscraper. Again through lengthy flashback, his suicide is deferred — long enough for us to forget how things end, long enough for some emotional investment in his character to take hold, long enough for a far-fetched miracle to stop him from thudding against the pavement below.
The Coens like to make everything out of nothing just as much as they like to trivialise the momentous. In Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1991, the brothers fashioned a comical, overblown drama from the unwelcome rut of writer's block. With The Big Lebowski, they made a film which they later admitted has "a hopelessly complex plot that's ultimately unimportant".
Over time, of course, this seemingly all-out commitment to the deferral of dramatic sincerity becomes, with proper care and attention, a dramatically sincere gesture in itself. Taking each film individually, this eccentric storytelling style could, by the most damming of critics, be taken as just a series of plot gimmick. But when it's done over the course 17 films, it becomes a whole new cinematic style, one so influential it's changed what the audience expect from seeing a Coen Brothers film - no one could feel short-changed if their next picture didn't have a neat ending.
But even by the Coens' standards, Hail, Caesar! is especially teasing. Set in the early 1950s, it follows Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, head of production at Capitol Pictures, a fictional Hollywood studio whose backlots and sound stages are filled with a motley crew of stars whose off-stage lives threaten to drive the studio into the doldrums of scandal.
Mannix is a fictional surrogate for a real-life namesake who worked for MGM. His job is to prevent unwanted tittle-tattle reaching the press, and so often finds himself having to outmanoeuvre vampiric gossip-columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), two identical twins who compete for telltale headlines.
Tatum plays Burt Gurney, who, when he's not winning our hearts on set, is driving out to a plush beach house (think of the villain's lair in North By Northwest) in order to rendezvous with a group of communist scriptwriters and defect to Soviet Russia by means of a submarine — which emerges off the Malibu coast like a surreal, marine-dwelling dinosaur. The commies have kidnapped Capitol's chief box office draw Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) straight from the set of Hail, Caesar!, a swords-and-sandals epic and the studio's big priority release. They are the latest in a long line of self-bickering, gullibly utopian ransom-demanders or scheme-makers created by the Coens: basically a whole clan of Steve Buscemis and Peter Stormares from Fargo.
Hail, Caesar! isn't the only fake film being made at Capitol Pictures: there's also No Dames,Merrily We Dance and Lazy Ol' Moon. Each is as arbitrary and whimsical as the others. But there's something religious at work here — not in the spiritual sense, but as regards submitting oneself to the higher god of cinema. Mannix's humble aim to make the kind of film we watch every Easter on ITV4 "with distinction and panache", comes to prove highly infectious and ultimately winning.
These lofty cinematic ambitions, verbalised in such throwaway fashion, nod to the Coens' own career-long maxims. They know more than anyone the limits and strengths of filmmaking as a form that must be fucked with — and sure enough, time and again, Hail, Caesar! pulls the rug just when we're getting into it. We learn, early on, not to invest too much in any of these characters. Just when you're getting settled into a story-within-a-story, it steps back to remind us of the wider fiction. It's no surprise when Clooney, on top form as another dim-witted knucklehead — and perhaps the only character in the film that comes close to undergoing any kind of spiritual transformation — forgets his lines just as he's about to deliver a climactic sermon in his film-within-a-film.
That we invest at all in Hail, Caesar!, however, is surely testament to the Coen Brothers' directorial powers, and to the immersive qualities of their storytelling. Nothing seems to liberate the Coens' visual sensibilities like a turn towards the very industry in which they operate. Which makes Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers' most Coensy film yet.
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