Parts much more than the sum of the whole

This is my review of Hail, Caesar! [DVD].

The Coen brothers have applied their trademark quirkiness to a parody of Hollywood in the 1950s, a world of glamorous make-believe masking the cynical commercialism of the studio bosses who railroad stars into keeping the show on the road at all costs, with hints of the grim background of kneejerk anti-communist McCarthyism.

The Coens have chosen a lightweight approach so that, without giving much, even any, thought to the underlying tensions and moral dilemmas, one can enjoy the slapstick and nostalgia over corny sets – guitar-strumming cowbow singing a ditty to the moon and mermaid siren emerging from a Busby Berkeley circle of synchronised bathing belles. So, when drunken philanderer Baird Whitlock, super star played by George Clooney is kidnapped, one does not worry about his safety, just as there is no pathos in a single mother star being ordered to undertake a fake marriage to preserve her reputation.

The lugubrious “fixer”, studio manager Eddie Mannix, presides over it all, unable to accept a more tempting job offer in the oil business (likely to involve far less wheeler-dealing), since despite himself he is bound to the role which drives him to chain smoke, instantly converting him when required into an unscrupulous monster of control who will stop at nothing to carry out his boss’s orders. He somehow squares this with his Catholic conscience, only feeling the need to confess “too often” to having broken a promise to his wife to give up cigarettes.

In spite of some entertaining if disjointed scenes, such as a “Nothing like a dame” sailors’ routine to rival Gene Kelly, I felt mostly unengaged, perhaps because the storyline is so fragmented as to disappear at times, the ham acting “on set” seems to extend into “real life” and I did not care enough about the characters, never doubting that it would all end pretty much as it began. It probably helps to know more than I did about the various real characters being parodied, but I suspect that the most positive reviews will come from those who simply enjoyed the entertainment, which surely cannot have been the Coen brothers’ artistic intention.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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