When the Coen Brothers Make Fun of Old Hollywood

As is the case with all essentially monopolistic regimes, the studio system ended up crumbling under its own weight. At the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, the advent of television combined with a series of gigantic flops (“Cleopatra,” “Doctor Dolittle”) brought the major studios to their knees. The studios then bet on more intimate productions led by young directors obsessed with European cinema d’auteur – although their reign didn’t last long, a dozen years at most…

The period preceding the New Hollywood revolution is commonly called the “sword-and-sandal” era, a reference to the outrageously expensive productions that usually took place in ancient Rome, that were meant to wow viewers who more and more were staying away from dark theaters in favor of the comfort of their living rooms. It’s interesting to note that the fascination the old Hollywood nabobs had with the Roman Empire was probably a foreshadowing of their own epic fall.

This is an irony that Joel and Ethan Coen have certainly revealed, since they take real delight in the satirical dissection of the follies of grandeur. And their new full-length feature film seems exactly fueled by that feeling: a large-scale entertainment driven by a completely crazy intrigue.

In “Hail, Caesar!” we’re transported backstage in an epic called… “Hail, Caesar!” But the filming is undermined by several problems, including the kidnapping of the film’s star, played by George Clooney in screwball mode – a tradition for him and the brothers, who revealed that exuberant facet of his acting, starting with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and continuing in “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading.”

Simply reading the list of cast members is enough to make you dizzy. Scarlett Johansson, whom the Coens directed 15 years ago in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,“ plays an actress who gets pregnant at the wrong time. Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men”) plays someone who seems to be the narrator, a fixer, employed by the studio to sort out problems and keep scandals out of the reach of the media.

We also find Channing Tatum (a Gene Kelly-style Magic Mike), Ralph Fiennes (a director), Christophe Lambert (same), Frances McDormand (a film-editor), Jonah Hill (an accountant), Tilda Swinton (a gossip columnist) and … Dolph Lundgren, in the role of a Soviet submarine commander.

Despite the fizzy tone and the colorful images of the trailer, “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t a light musical. At least, according to the Coen brothers’ faithful composer, Carter Burwell, who said last April: “There are movies within the movie, and those movies might have comedic music, but the movie we’re making is actually not comical. It’s actually going to be quite the opposite. It’s going to be rather serious, and it’s about faith.”

It would be surprising, however, if “Hail, Caesar!” were as dark as their other movie about the film industry, “Barton Fink,” the story of a renowned New York playwright who finds himself forced to write a fight film in Hollywood; a not-very-enviable situation that gets even more complicated when the devil gets in the mix. It should be noted that Barton is employed by the fictional studio Capitol Pictures, whose logo we can see at 1:19 minutes into the trailer for “Hail, Caesar!”

Don’t forget that the Palme d’Or prize in 1991 was for the first collaboration between the Coens and the director of photography, Roger Deakins. The three men were inseparable for the next quarter of a century, except for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Here is a brief homage to one of the most admirable artistic relationships in contemporary cinema: (SEE HERE) .

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