Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton in a scene from the movie Hail, Caesar!
Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton in a scene from the movie Hail, Caesar! Photo Alison Cohen Rosa

Magic of 1950s Tinseltown brought back to life

HAIL, Caesar! is one of the Coen brothers' jolliest and most carefree films - quite a surprise considering its subject matter.

The film is set in Hollywood in the 1950s at the height of the anti-communist hysteria.

The main character is a fictionalised version of the real-life studio exec Eddie Mannix, who was Louis B. Mayer's enforcer at MGM.

If a male star was gay or a female one became pregnant, Mannix was the one who either kept the story out of the papers or spun it to the studio's advantage.

In the 2006 feature Hollywoodland, he was played as a dark and ruthless figure by the late Bob Hoskins. Here, Josh Brolin portrays him as a genial workaholic who charms rather than bullies actors, journalists and cops into behaving themselves and whose only real vice is smoking too many cigarettes.

Brolin's super-efficient Mannix is very different from Jeff Bridges' hapless, permanently stoned "Dude", but what the two characters have in common is their tendency to get caught in the most outlandish scrapes.

The particular headache that Mannix has to deal with here is the disappearance of Capitol Pictures' biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), midway through the shooting of the studio's big-budget biblical epic Hail Caesar! A Tale of The Christ.

Whitlock is a drunkard and a womaniser but he is also utterly charming. Clooney, who spends much of the movie in a toga, plays him in a thoroughly winning way.

Generally, when the inner workings of Hollywood are shown on screen, for example in A Star Is Born and The Bad and The Beautiful, the studio system is depicted as a hotbed of viciousness, egotism and backstabbing. In Hail, Caesar! Tinseltown is a magical, Trumpton-like world from which unhappiness seems to have been banished and the sun is always shining.

Everyone is cheerful. Even the super-bitchy gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) aren't that vicious really. And one of the delights of the film is its collection of comic cameo performances.

Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams-like aquatic movie star, DeeAnna Moran, who looks like a goddess when she is performing as a mermaid underwater but is very down-to-earth and foul-mouthed when she's not on camera.

She takes a thoroughly upbeat approach to problems that threaten to sink her career.

The film enables the Coens and their brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins to pastiche every kind of genre from the classical studio era. There's a Gene Kelly-like dance sequence involving a lot of randy sailors in a bar (led by Channing Tatum).

The Coens aren't just parodying Hollywood in the last spasms of its golden age. They're paying tribute to it too. They are imagining the studio system as they might have liked it to have been - as a true dream factory. Hail, Caesar! isn't the most profound film the brothers have ever made but it is certainly one of the most pleasurable to watch.

Hail, Caesar! Opens nationally on Thursday.


Hail, Caesar!

Stars: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum.

Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen

Rating: PG

Reviewer's last word: The Coen brothers go to Hollywood and it's a pleasure to watch as they and cinematographer Roger Deakins pastiche every kind of genre from the classical studio era.

Star Profile: Scarlett Johansson

Quirky fact: Dislikes the nickname "ScarJo" that is commonly used by the media in reference to her.

Best known for: Lost in Translation, Avengers, The Prestige.

If you like this movie you'll like these: Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Quote: "I was always terrible at commercials because my voice was so deep. At the age of nine, I sounded like a whisky-drinking, chain-smoking fool."

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