Release date: 4 March 2016
Running time: 106 min
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starrring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlet Johansson, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand
The Glasgow Film Festival enters its twelfth year in impressive fashion, kicking things off at its opening night gala with the UK premiere of Hail, Caesar!, the latest slice of mad cap comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen. Following in the footsteps of The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014, and While We’re Young in last year, the festival once again opens with a laugh out loud comedy from a high profile indie director (or directors, in this instance). These opening acts have allowed the GFF to stand apart from the Edinburgh International Film festival –whose credo is to highlight Scottish cinema at their galas- by offering crowd pleasing efforts with a certain amount of Hollywood star power attached.
With that in mind, Hail Caesar! is an inspired choice to open this year’s festival. A glitzy, star- studded look at 24 hours in the life of Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, a problem solver for Capitol Pictures; a studio giant in 1950s Hollywood. It’s a great showcase for the classical period, with some of its most time honoured traditions shown through the lens of the Coens’ and their particular brand of lopsided satire. If ever a homage was tongue in cheek, this is what it would look like. The results are often glorious. Brolin is on top form, barrelling around the sunbathed movie backlots and darkened warehouse set, trying desperately to put out fires, keep plates spinning, and prevent his stars from ending up in the gossip pages.
Stylistically, this knockabout comedy is about as far removed as you can get from Blood Simple, the nihilistic, neo-noir that was the Coen’s debut feature back in 1984. And while the brothers have come a long way in the last 30 odd years, Hail, Caesar! plays out almost like a greatest hits compilation of some of their most famous and successful works. The behind the curtain look at the Hollywood studio system was covered with deadpan delight in Barton Fink, the baffling investigative narrative is pure Lebowski, while this outlandish world filled with cartoonish characters with funny names is lifted from, well about 75% of their back catalogue.
One underlining element that has cropped up in the Coens’ works time and time again is a feeling of pointlessness, as if their films are just one big joke at the expense of those who make the mistake of caring too much. The Dude didn’t need to solve the kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski, but merely waited for her to get bored and make her own way home. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane couldn’t get arrested for murder even when he confessed to anyone who’d listen. And at the end of the day, Llewyn Davis is going to be sat singing the same tired folk song in the same dead end club, waiting to be discovered.
Eddie Mannix is on a similarly meaningless journey. His world is a conveyor belt of calamity; in the time it takes him to fix one problem, three more have arisen to take its place. His efforts may ultimately be fruitless, but there is still plenty to enjoy in the journey. As we’ve come to expect from the brothers, the writing is first rate, as sparkling and wry as their finest works. A sequence where Mannix debates the representation of Christ in Capitol’s latest big budget epic with clergymen from three different branches of Christianity (and a rabbi) is an early contender for scene of the year.
While consistently hilarious throughout, the rudderless nature of the script does eventually catch up with it. As the film enters its third act, scenes start feeling more and more like stand alone segments rather than the part of a larger, overarching story. Lack of direction is another common trope for the Coens’, but unlike some of their other ‘lighter’ films, the conclusion is not quite satisfying enough for it to pay off. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly hollow offering, unlikely to be hailed as one of the Coens’ best, but a damn fine way to open this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.