|'Don't be surprised if this becomes the next Coen film to garner a devoted cult following in the not-too-distant future'.|
The Coen Brothers have long defied conventional genre categorisation, with each film they release offering a heady concoction of comedy and tragedy, the ludicrous and the poignant in varying degrees. Their recent output has been made up of films that could at most be described as tragicomic, but far more comfortably fit into other genres - drama, western, thriller - tinged with occasional humour. In contrast, Hail, Caesar! feels like the brothers' first out-and-out comedy since 2008's Burn After Reading, and it's by far the most "Coenesque" comedy they've made for some time.
Hail, Caesar!'s promotional material would have you believe the film revolves around the kidnapping of major 1950s film star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and the attempts of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Capitol Studios' Head of Physical Production, to get the actor back - with hilarious results. This is in reality not entirely true. Whitlock is indeed held hostage, but the Coens aren't interested generating much mystery from this, revealing the identity of his abductors fairly early on in a matter-of-fact manner that's likely to puzzle initially. The whole caper is far from the film's main focus either, instead forming one of several parallel narratives played out at Capitol connected by Mannix, the closest thing to a protagonist the brothers are prepared to offer.
Much like The Big Lebowski, rather than offering a tightly woven plot, the events here are simply things happening to a wide range of vaguely connected figures we are introduced to. By the end, some of these events have come together, and others haven't. It doesn't work as well as in the Coens' earlier cult classic - Mannix, although a fine creation played with aplomb by Brolin, is never as enigmatic or appealing as The Dude. It does, however, allow the fraternal film-makers to introduce us to a host of weird and wonderful characters played by a strong cast made up of both new collaborators and Coen alumni. It's only a shame that some of these are seen so briefly, as each feels as though they could have their own film made about them.
The lack of focus on plot will occasionally frustrate, but Hail, Caesar! is far more concerned with holding your attention in other ways. Firstly, the Coens are once again interested with asking bigger questions regarding faith, fate, morality and free will, amongst other "big" topics. The answers they come up with (if any) are characteristically open to interpretation, but the brothers consistently pose them with their trademark wit and intelligence; a focus group called together early on by Mannix of four religious figures is pure Coen-brand gold. The second is the more overt love letter written by the directors to the film industry of the early '50s. The period recreations are all meticulously authentic, flawlessly crafted and hugely entertaining.
The sprawling nature of Hail, Caesar! means it never truly reaches the heights of the Coen Brothers' very best work. But, just as the film occasionally irks through narrative obscurity, it consistently delights in the artistry, humour and heart shot through its every frame. Don't be surprised if this becomes the next Coen film to garner a devoted cult following in the not-too-distant future.