Hail, Caesar! review: Comedy from Coen Brothers is short on big laughs

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Coen Bros – audience. Audience – Coen Bros. It’s never been an easy relationship.

Critics almost always love their films; real people only occasionally. This is probably because they are awkward, contrary buggers. So it is entirely natural that one of their most commercial-sounding projects – a light, sunny, star-studded comedy set in 1950s Hollywood – turns out to be one of their least engaging and most audience-repellent films.

Probably your first thought when you heard about Hail, Caesar! was: how can it fail? George Clooney plays movie star Baird Whitlock, who is abducted from the set of a biblical epic where he is playing a Roman centurion. But after a moment’s reflection, your second thought might well have been a very clear outline for how it could fail: the cosy, self-congratulation of George Clooney working with the Coens again; the Coens doing outright comedy in general. Clooney, Coen and comedy -they don’t bring out the best in each other.

Even so, you’d expect better than this. It is not that there aren’t treasures in it. Josh Brolin’s meeting with various religious leaders as a movie studio boss is very funny: “The Bible is a swell book”. And Fiennes is hilarious as a British director trying to coax a performance from a young cowboy actor in his sophisticated drawing room drama. There are some great lines, such as the piece of direction given to Clooney when meeting Jesus: “squint against the grandeur”. But for the most part Hail, Caesar! is oddly weightless. There are deeper, inscrutable themes playing themselves out underneath, but the surface is a very loose, rather indulgent send-up of Hollywood, little more than a series of skits and parodies that are neither funny nor particularly accurate.

The Coens have no business having fun, their terrain is the dark. But I suppose these frivolities have their purpose. They are like serial killers who strike once every decade when they become overwhelmed with their black-hearted imaginings – Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country for Old Men. There are dark moments in between, but a lot of the films seem like time-fillers, keeping their skill sets in working order as they wait for dark longings to build. By my reckoning, they are about due.

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