Hail, Caesar! ★★★½

In 1998, in what I still refer to, 'Gatsby'-style, as "my younger and more vulnerable years", I was disappointed by The Big Lebowski. I was at the time crushing deeply on the Coen brothers, having recently fallen for Fargo and tracked back over their earlier works, devouring them on repeat. I was primed for my next course - what would be, I was sure, my next satisfyingly styled meal.

I left Lebowski deflated. But it grew on me, like it grew on many. Not because of critical opinion, which tended to raise over time, or because of its evolving cult status, but because I came to term with the beauty of its inconsequentiality.

I dwell on this here because I recognise a similar potential in the Coens' latest. Hail, Caesar!, with all its old Hollywood-aesthetic buffoonery, its hammy sketch-comedy cameos and its ridiculously over the top song and dance numbers, is pierced through with a thread of religious allegory that threatens to mean something. It presses, ever so gently (at least in comparison to the general on-screen antics) to interrogate the exact alchemy of the Hollywood dream factory/cynical entertainment churned dichotomy.

That's for pondering though. And I'm not yet convinced if it's going to go the Lebowski path or take the longer, more meandering route into cinematic purgatory that the likes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? have tread, wide eyed and aimless.

Not that wide-eyed isn't at play here. George Clooney is back to full ham - it's something Joel and Ethan clearly love in him - though he may have found his equal in Channing Tatum, who pulls out a scrumptiously camp sailor-suited tap dance. Drier humour comes from Coen newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy star undergoing a non-too-successful makeover to sparkling socialite, Tilda Swinton as a pair of gossip columnists and from a cell of erudite communists. The salty comes thanks to Scarlett Johansson's brassy Esther Williams stand-in (swim-in?) - she's got quite the mouth on her outside the beautifully realised Busby Berkeley set-piece.

The sketch heavy cameo-fest is linked up by Josh Brolin's penitent studio "fixer" Eddie Mannix. He guides the audience through the Coens' colourful, overtly exuberant love letter. It's Brolin who keeps the edge alive. Mannix's self-questioning, spiritually and professionally, is the film's nudging revelation, hinting subtly (and sometimes none-too-subtly) that Hollywood is the new religion and that the producer is god. Gloss back over the sketches and there's a "immaculate" conception, a pernicious ideology, some devlil tempting, an intimate betrayal, a "father" "son" slapdown, there's even a crucifixion if you'll pay the film's central production, the vast Roman epic that gives the Coens' their title, its climactic scene. That shoot comes with its own ballsy spiritual revelation, and is beautifully undercut by the brothers' irreverent schtick.

So it may not be the journey that will help Hail, Caesar! endure (and endure it will - I think I've convinced myself of that whilst writing), that's a well trod path. It's the scenery that lines the path that does the trick. It's the way it can give a brief window into the manic fanaticism we call belief. It's the way it taps into our willingness to indulge this fanaticism through our suspension of disbelief when we step into the cinema... and the heretically comic parallels the film draws with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

That's all there if you can be bothered. Or just slip on your sandals and settle in for the gloriously realised, star-studded, silver screen ride.

Michael liked this review