There will always be a certain rose tinted view of the past when it comes to the movie industry, and with a film set during the so called Golden Age of Hollywood this is certainly the case. But rather than focus simply on the production of grand scale epics and musicals, this is another oddball Coen Brothers picture so it's also full of behind the scenes in-fighting, gossip column writers and potential career wrecking political scandals. But with all this material to cover as well as a large amount of detail to be included to recreate the size of film shoots and the number of people involved, it's probably no surprises that there's a certain lack of focus. Can the studio system which produced the phrase a cast of thousands be easily viewed through the perspective of one character?
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has a tough job to do. As a studio "fixer" he works for a thinly veiled MGM to smooth over all kinds of problems including directors and actors coming into conflict, starlets being involved in scandalous photo shoots, and managing what kind of information the press wants to write about. His attempts to quit smoking are certainly not going to be easy under such pressure, and on top of this his own personal pride is in question during shady meetings with Lockheed personnel who want to offer him an easier path. All of his problems begin to mount as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) star of the title film Hail, Caesar! is kidnapped during filming by sinister forces.
All of these elements give the whole thing a scattershot, sketch like feeling as it moves from one set piece to the next, between lavish sound stages and studio boardrooms. It's an impressive recreation. Channing Tatum is impressive during a song and dance number and there are also synchronised swimming sequences with Scarlett Johansson and Roman legions being led by Clooney and Clancy Brown. Mannix rushes from one room to the next to try and solve issues with pregnant stars and actors who can barely talk being forced into features they have no experience with, all the while waiting on information from both kidnappers and potential employers.
But this is primarily a comedy and a lot of this stuff is good fun, particularly during the titular films production. It's all done with a certain amount of silliness and a sense of nostalgia - it's no coincidence the film is set in 1951, the year Quo Vadis was released. Visual gags during early screenings have missing scenes replaced with text declaring "divine presence yet to be filmed" and director's cues can be heard yelling "squint at the grandeur!" as Clooney meets the holy son. A boardroom scene with Robert Picardo as a rabbi meeting Mannix and other religious leaders on how to best depict such moments raises a few good chuckles as well. There's plenty of awkward humour as Ralph Fiennes tries to direct a star known for riding horses and making lassos on screen for a classy costume drama, and Coen regular Frances McDormand gets a single but memorable moment during a cutting room mishap.
Describing all of this does highlight the main issue though, and it's something which effects the narrative as things jump from one weird character to the next. In a way this gives a great sense of the pressure Mannix is under, but from a pacing perspective it's not quite so effective. For fans of the film making duo there are enough highlights along the way, but it's not up there with the best they've done. It's a fun ride but the journey is a little too rough and patchy to be a total success.
THE LOBSTER (2016)
It's not often you get an absurdist dystopian comedy, but here we are. The Lobster is the story of David (Colin Farrell) who is staying at an isolated hotel. Here the occupants are given a limited number of days to find a romantic partner or face the consequences - transformation into an animal of their choice. Initially this just seems to be a kooky idea played for laughs as all the residents are weird, awkward people who lack any charisma and real people skills. However there's a certain bleak sci-fi element permeating the whole thing as it's shown to be part of a society where couples are the only accepted people and "loners" hide out in the wilderness avoiding capture. As a critique of everyday social constructs it's pretty cutting, and there are a lot of strange and sinister moments as David meets other, similarly desperate characters and more information about the outside world is revealed.
However beyond the critique of a place where marriage and companionship are given more weight than they probably deserve, things feel a bit stretched out. There are a lot of jokes about the cast trying to find partners based on trivial similarities like being short-sighted or having a limp, which of course is no basis for lasting romance and is easy to fake. Outside the confines of the hotel the world is interesting but less compelling as the loners avoid the authorities and plan attacks to ruin existing relationships in retaliation. This is a single joke concept though, and it's not really something which works at this length. It's strange and sad, often funny and often cringe inducing, but the running time just feels a bit much for something which could have been sharper and more pointed.