Thursday 3 March 2016 7:45 pm

Hail, Caesar! is a witty love letter to Hollywood’s Golden era

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen | ★★★★☆

"Squint! Squint into the grandeur!” a film director yells as George Clooney, in a swinging leather skirt and scabbard, peers earnestly into the camera. He looks ridiculous, but then who wouldn’t?

This image is the Coen brothers’ latest star-studded comedy in a nutshell, and thanks to their particular brand of low-key irony, it manages to be both a heartfelt tribute to the golden age of Hollywood and a gentle lampoon of its navel-gazing tendencies.

It follows a working week in the shoes of Eddie Mannix, an actor-slapping, fast-talking Hollywood fixer – a sort of PR man ahead of his time, crisis managing his way from film set to film set.

And the “stars” are just regular Joes like you and I, flailing their way through life, clinging on to the scant opportunities thrown their way. Scarlett Johansson’s character is a bombshell in the Monroe mould, sycophantically grinning her way through synchronised swimming sequences, but secretly scheming her way out of an illegitimate pregnancy. Alden Erienreich is a humble Southern ranger, plucked from obscurity but desperately trying to keep up appearances in a “serious” picture.

Meanwhile, Channing Tatum is a fruity tap dancer dogged by rumours about his sexuality, and George Clooney has been kidnapped by a cabal of communist screenwriters midway through filming Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! Mannix needs to hide all of this from Tilda Swinton, who plays twin gossip columnists that love nothing more than to slag each other off.

All have fabulous 50s film star names like Baird Whitlock and Hobie Doyle, but they play exaggerated versions of their current on-screen personas; Clooney is charming but impressionable, Johansson is a savvy femme fatale, and Ralph Fiennes – who steals the show as a thespy director – is a pretentious, theatrical bore.

These episodes unfold as a serious of riotous snapshots into the absurd and exasperating world of showbusiness and there are couple of truly outstanding set pieces, including Fiennes trying to teach Erienreich how to recite simple lines of dialogue, and Mannix’s attempt to sign off his Biblical movie without offending a round table of religious leaders.

It’s clear from the care that goes into recreating these faux westerns, epics, and musicals that the Coen brothers are completely besotted with the era. As a result some of the pastiches – namely Tatum’s dance number – are longer than they need to be and the humour is never particularly biting.

It never quite reaches the upper echelons of the best satire, but Hail, Caesar! is a witty love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age and a winsome addition to the Coen catalogue.