Hail, Caesar! (and five other films about Hollywood skullduggery)
Joel and Ethan Coen are something of a unique entity among the rank and file of Hollywood film directors, producing a body of work over the last 30 years or so that is both difficult to characterise and yet easily recognisable. The brothers have never been ones to stick to a particular genre or visual style, but there are certain recurring tropes that are apparent in all of their films; a skill for writing clever, nuanced dialogue, down-on-their-luck protagonists, a dry sense of humour and a love of subverting Hollywood's many stylistic cliches are all regular Coen themes. They're cinephiles as much as they are filmmakers and their meticulous approach has won them many admirers amongst actors and audiences alike.
Their new film combines both of these factors in its subject matter and its star-studded cast. Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood during the 'golden age' of filmmaking at the beginning of the 1950s and the story is a heavily fictionalised account of the scene at Capitol Pictures, centred around real-life studio 'fixer' Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). For anyone unsure as to what that means, Mannix is basically the guy in charge of managing the reputations of both the studio and the actors – in other words, avoiding or covering up any scandals that might affect them and ensuring productions run smoothly, by any and all means necessary.
The studio is running a major production called Hail, Caesar!, a Roman epic starring Hollywood's big name of the era, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). However, things start to go awry when Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped by a communist group calling themselves 'The Future' – mostly made up of Hollywood screenwriters - who are demanding $100,000 for his return. Mannix is tasked with finding and retrieving the actor, but he's also juggling several other problems; a journalist is poised to publish a story about a scandal from an earlier film, he's struggling to wedge an actor known for Westerns into an arty romance picture, plus he has a pregnant actress who is secretly trying to put her unborn child into foster care to preserve her image.
With its beautifully presented homage to the films of the 1950s and its superbly silly portrayal of stereotypical Hollywood types, the Coens' new film is both a love letter to the Hollywood of the golden era and complete send-up of the same, filled with the Coens' trademark dry humour and some excellent performances from an impressive cast that includes, alongside Clooney and Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand, with narration provided by Michael Gambon.
In some ways, Hail, Caesar! is perhaps more self-indulgent than anything the Coens have done before, but that's only because the subject they've applied their subversive lens to here is closer to home than most, and when the results are this smart and this funny, that's unlikely to displease any of their admirers.
You can find the trailer below, beneath that we've picked out five other great films on the subject of Hollywood skullduggery...
As biting satires on the subject of Hollywood go, they don't come much better than Robert Altman's 1992 film. Tim Robbins stars as hot-shot studio executive Griffin Mill, responsible for selecting a handful of the 50,000 scripts he receives each year to be put into production, but his life begins to unravel when he starts receiving malicious postcards and death threats from an unknown stalker. Convinced that the postcards are the work of a screenwriter named David Kahane, Mill tracks him down with the intention of offering him a movie deal in the hope that this will put a stop to the threats. However, the meeting doesn't go as planned and when a fight breaks out, Mill ends up drowning Kahane in a pool, staging the scene of the murder to look like a robbery. However, when he receives another postcard he realises that not only did he kill the wrong man, but his stalker knows about it. What follows is a cavalcade of backstabbing, blackmail and duplicity that sees Mill trying every trick in the book to avoid arrest and increase his standing at the studio. Altmann is revered by many as an all-time great and this send-up of the movie industry is one of the best you'll ever see.
Much like Hail, Caesar!, the plot to Allen Coulter's 2006 film features a fictionalised story involving Eddie Mannix (this time played by Bob Hoskins), but the tone here is more sinister and the storyline revolves around the death of former Superman actor George Reeves, played here by Ben Affleck. In real life, Reeves was found dead at his home in 1959 from a single gunshot wound to the head, ruled by the police to be suicide. However, rumours and theories have circulated ever since as to the actual cause of death and the idea that Reeves was instead murdered forms the basis for Coulter's film. Adrien Brody stars as a private investigator tasked with uncovering the truth and his investigation takes him through the seedy underbelly of the movie industry, with Mannix portrayed as a potential suspect because of Reeves' affair with his wife, Toni (Diane Lane). It's a much darker depiction of Mannix than you'll find in the Coens' film, but one that's no less compelling.
Swimming With Sharks
This film from director George Huang stars Kevin Spacey as a sadistic but influential studio executive named Buddy Ackerman who hires a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) as an assistant. Guy initially thinks he has landed his dream gig, but the dream soon turns into a nightmare when his new boss proceeds to bully and humiliate him at every turn. When Guy submits a a script that he feels has got potential and Buddy hijacks it, taking the credit, Guy snaps and decides to hold Buddy hostage at his home. Not to spoil the ending, but there's superb twist in the tail of this film that highlights the ruthlessness needed to suceed in the movie business. An underrated film that is well worth your attention.
Something of a cult classic from director Barry Sonnenfeld, Get Shorty stars John Travolta as a Mafia debt collector named Chili Palmer who travels to Hollywood to collect a gambling debt, but winds up being seduced by the bright lights of the movie business when he realises he can make a killing by strong-arming a producer into making a film about his life as a mobster, in exchange for letting him off the hook and helping him set up a rival gangster. With an impressive cast that also includes Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito and James Gandolfini, Sonnenfeld's film didn't enjoy the same commercial success as some of his other movies like Men in Black, but this dark comedy is a real gem.
Steve Martin stars in this 1999 comedy from Frank Oz as a struggling film producer desperate to make his mark in Hollywood, by any means necessary. His latest script is an alien invasion story that he's convinced is an Oscar winner, but he struggles to convince his ideal leading man, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) to take the role. So the cunning producer hatches a plan; hire Kit's lookalike brother Jiff (also played by Murphy) for the essential scenes, and then covertly film the others with the real Kit – but without his knowledge. Yes, it's ridiculous, but Bowfinger's manouveres in order to get Kit into position for the the scenes is where most of the laughs come from in this film and Murphy is brilliant in both roles. Well worth a watch.