The latest offering from the inimitable Coen brothers is Hail, Caesar!, a goofy love letter to the golden age of Hollywood. Set in the 1950s, the story follows Capitol Studios "fixer" Eddie Mannix as he wrangles some of the biggest stars of the silver screen. The collective tongue is firmly in the collective cheek - these fictional stars are played by some of the biggest stars of today. Think Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney and Channing Tatum. Just in old-timey clothes.
Hail, Caesar! nods to the moment in history when big old holes started appearing in the seamless Hollywood studio system, when stars began to go rogue and talent could no longer hinge on just a strong jaw. During production on a blockbuster Roman epic, the lead star (Clooney) goes missing from the set and chaos ensues. There are shades of 1952's Singin' in the Rain, a similarly irony-rich big-budget film that satirised and yearned for a period of film from days gone by.
Where the high-concept musical Singin' in the Rain had a strong, purposeful bite at the impact of technology on Hollywood and the importance of "credit where credit's due", Hail, Caesar! tentatively nibbles at any form of commentary, mostly choosing to soar high on an absurdly enjoyable flight of nostalgic fancy. With glitzy synchronised swimming set-pieces, enormous troops of extras and the best costume styling of Tilda Swinton since Trainwreck, Hail, Caesar! happily splashes around in the decadent luxury afforded to big-billing films of the 50s.
Much like the 1950s studio star system didn't always necessarily favour the most talented people, the least-known name on the Hail, Caesar! bill stole the whole show for me. Hobie Doyle, played with deft density by Alden Ehrenreich, is a bumbling cowboy with the acting chops of a carrot but the chiseled face of Clark Kent. There's a particularly strong, agonisingly long scene where Hobie repeatedly fails to nail a line. It was the funniest part of the movie, and had me googling the actor the moment I left the cinema.
Be warned: Hail, Caesar! slips between poking gentle fun at old Hollywood, and knee-sliding joyfully into full, slick musical numbers that prance for what feels like nine solid minutes. Channing Tatum, undoubtedly the Gene Kelly of the modern era, dons a sailor costume and tap-dances on top of a bar. There's a lovely parallel there, considering that just last year he was grinding on a tool bench in Magic Mike XXL. It's a reminder that things have changed for Hollywood, but some will always stay the same. Audiences still go crazy for a man wearing eyeliner with tappy toes.
Any fan of Hollywood through any age will find some form of geeky glee in Hail, Caesar!, whether it be in George Clooney's painful Spartacus-inspired costuming or Scarlett Johansson's raspy, irritable take on a sickly sweet screen starlet. It's an assemblage of recognisable Hollywood archetypes, chewed up and spit out in a screwball genre of comedy seldom seen these days.
Revisiting the 1950s studio system also has me thinking: in 50 years from now, what films will Hollywood be making about the 2016 film industry? Will there be a dramatised version of #Oscarssowhite? A heart-wrenching biopic about Leonardo DiCaprio's journey to an Oscar, played by DiCaprio's computer-rendered image? And will that win an Oscar? If anything, Hail, Caesar! serves as a reminder that the future is always watching, and judging us. If anyone needs me, I'll be drafting up a script for my 2056 cyber-thriller about the Sony hacks.