I love Joel and Ethan Coen. For over thirty years they’ve written, directed, produced and edited – good ol’ Roderick Jaynes – everything from neo-noir thrillers, Westerns, screwball comedies and other works which don’t seem to fall into any category whatsoever – and what’s more; we love them for it. Because of this, I was most excited to feast my eyes upon their latest oeuvre – a film within a film. A Hollywood satire about the troubled production of a swords and sandals picture, with the usual Coen idiosyncrasies we’ve come to love and admire over the years. Sounds fun – right?
It’s a simple plot. Head of Physical Production and fixer to the stars at Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), has plenty to deal with – disgruntled European film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), an Esther Williams type actress; DeeAnna Moran, who becomes pregnant during production (Scarlett Johansson), singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and handsome Gene Kelly type dancer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).
Furthermore, identical twins and rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (trying saying that after a few White Russians) – played by a criminally under-used Tilda Swinton – are constantly trying to get information from Mannix.
If all that wasn’t enough, the studio’s major production of the year is Hail, Caesar!, an epic set in ancient Rome starring huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).
When Whitlock is kidnapped by a Communist group calling themselves The Future, Mannix faces his biggest challenge yet.
Now, I understand the references to previous Hollywood classics and indeed its stars. The dancing sailors scene and ‘No Dames’ number made me smile as I thought not about Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, but Eric and Ernie doing their own tribute to the genre in the 70s!
The costumes are glorious. Hats off indeed to long-time Coen collaborator Mary Zophres. Jess Gonchor’s production design captures the Golden Age era of Hollywood perfectly, so this is definitely another positive.
The performances are also good. Nobody is poor, but some – in the case of Tilda Swinton – are under-used. Some, in the case of the Communists cell, are actually used too much.
The problems, for me, are the plot, and given that this has been labelled a comedy; the humour. It isn’t funny. Not that funny, and certainly not funny enough for a black comedy/satire from a pairing as talented and multi-faceted as the Brothers Coen.
The film cannot make up its mind what it wants to be and the plot is stretched far too wide over far too many characters. In the past, this hasn’t bothered me with the Coens. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is screwy and zany and goofy. But it’s funny and it works. You know, for kids!
Barton Fink (1991), (also set at the fictional Capitol Pictures) is a vague, hazy movie. It doesn’t fall into a specific genre and there is a great deal going on, not so much with plot, but with dialogue and symbolism. It does, however, resist the temptation to over-reach and sticks to Fink; John Turturro showing off his versatility in a marvellous character study and demonstration of the absurdity of 1940s Hollywood.
The truth is, I don’t know where Joel and Ethan went wrong. Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps it’s me. I know many a critic and film-fan alike have loved the movie, but I also know that others, like me, loathed it. Film is subjective. It’s why we love her so much. So, go and see it. Make up your own mind. But can you convince me otherwise, that this belongs up there with other Coen classics?
Would that it were so simple.