I go to the movies reasonably regularly and have seen many movies in the last few months. Some impressed me immensely, such as Spotlight and Brooklyn; some I enjoyed a lot with the odd reservation, such as Carol, The Danish Girl and The Belier Family; and others I could see the skill but they left me a little cold, like, say, the beautifully shot Revenant. However, although I’ve reviewed the odd (usually Australian) film in the past, film reviewing is not my thing, so you haven’t heard about them here. But then, a couple of days ago, we saw the Coen Brothers’* latest outing, Hail, Caesar.
I’m not going to review it, either – not really – but I’ve heard such mixed responses that I wanted to offer my two-penny’s worth, which is that it’s fun to watch, particularly if you have any interest in the golden years of Hollywood. The Coens weave their story around a day-or-so-in-the-life-of Mr Mannix, the studio go-to/fix-it man who reports to the studio boss. He looks after the actors, sorts out money problems and potential sticking points, deals with promotion and publicity, troubleshoots, in other words, anything and everything that happens on multiple sets. As he goes about this work, we see the films being made by the studio. There’s the biblical-Ben Hur like epic titled Hail, Caesar; an Esther Williams-like extravaganza; a singing cowboy adventure**; a Gene Kelly Anchors Aweigh style movie; and a British drawing-room drama, not to mention nods to James Dean, Hitchcock, spy-movies, HUAC‘s attack on Hollywood’s communists, and so on.
The Coens and their crew must have had a wonderful time creating vignettes for all these movie genres and styles, because they were, using my best non-review-language, a hoot. Take the drawing-room drama which, at the last minute, has to accept the singing cowboy in its starring role. Now our cowboy, Hobie, is known more for his singing and lassoo work, than his dramatic acting ability. The sentence he has to say in this vignette is the improbable “Would that it ‘twere so simple”. It’s a very funny scene, played beautifully by Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurents and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s worth every penny of your ticket when it comes (and not just because it features the inimitable Frances McDormand). There is, too, surely a joke in the title: Hail, Caesar is the title of the biblical epic around which the main plot turns, but Mannix is the Caesar on the lot.
The ensemble cast does a great job, but I do have to admit that when I and my party of movie-goers came out we all felt we’d seen a tribute but we weren’t sure there was much more to it, not like there was in, say, Barton Fink. If I could identify any specific serious point being made it would, perhaps, be about the lack of recognition of screenwriters.
However, perhaps it’s OK for the film not to have a BIG message. Perhaps it simply wants the audience to have fun, to remember the past (not with nostalgia but with a knowing sort of joy). And perhaps, too, the Coens want us to think about what we want from movies and movie-makers? I’m not sure I’ll remember this film long into the future, but I did enjoy it – and I can’t see anything wrong with that.
* I’ve written once before on the Coens – seems like I’m more likely to make an exception for them!
** In one of those strange coincidences, the day before we saw Hail, Caesar, I happened to see an old singing cowboy movie, Gene Autry in Guns and guitars, at the National Film and Sound Archive!