We have your movie star. Gather one hundred thousand dollars and await instructions. Who are we? The Future.
This cryptic ransom note kicks-off the main plotline of what can be best described as “Coen Bros Lite”, their valentine to Fifties Hollywood moviemaking. A kidnapping yarn that packs a magical visual punch, it’s set in the dream factory’s heyday of westerns, sword-and-sandal epics, stilted period pieces and aquatic musical extravaganzas. Although it is never mentioned as such, it also happens to be the days of the McCarthy Era, a factor key in much of the film’s levity. The secret to its success is not so much the plot, involving (in addition to kidnapping) Communist writers, the gossip mill, miscast actors, and the enforcement of the movie moral code of the day, but the series of wickedly funny vignettes that showcase the brothers’ zest for satire as they gently nip at the hand that feeds.
As is their trademark, the casting, from leads to cameos, is bang-on perfect. Although George Clooney swore he was finished playing the fool for the Coens when he completed Burn After Reading, he’s back in full clown mode as Baird Whitlock, the kidnapped star of the titular Bible epic, spending most of the film running around in his centurion costume. We also have Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the ultra-religious closet smoker who’s in charge of the studio’s moral compass, and Scarlett Johansson as the foul-mouthed, temperamental, and pregnant-by-who-knows Esther Williams clone. Real life rivals Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons are transformed into dueling gossip twins, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, presenting us with the bonus presence of Tilda Swinton in dual roles.
More fun comes from Channing Tatum as the Kelly/Astaire singer/dancer doing a homoerotic sailor dance number (“No Dames”) and Francis McDormand’s riotous take on female film editors – a Coates-Allen-Fields-Schoonmaker homage, of sorts. Personally, the real scene stealer was cowboy bumpkin with a drawl as thick as molasses, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who can trick-ride and lasso with the best of them but hits the wall hard when tying to get handle on a British accent. The face-to-face scene with his fey – and increasingly frustrated – director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), is an instant comedy classic.
The farce races from set piece to set piece, allowing cinematographer Roger Deakins to showcase his brilliance with light and color and composer Carter Burwell a range of venues to enhance with his score. The film probably has the greatest variety of art direction and costumes of any previous Coen effort, but there is more than first meets the eye, such as uncredited cameos (is that Dolph Lundgren in the submarine?) and thinly-veiled industry jokes and political commentary, which makes the visual prospecting on multiple viewings all the more rewarding.
Hollywood in the Fifties was immersed with avoiding any attention-getting conflicts that could bait detractors ready to pounce on any moral or political wanderings. The Cold War Dream Factory was a dark and desperate place where safety was sought by creating a fog of artificiality. The Coens run with this idea, taking their fun by styling their film in the faux-innocence drapery of the era – there’s no graphic violence or penetrating suspense that we usually associate with their films. This time around, the brothers are the Boy Scouts who prank by soaping the windows of an institution and then set fire to a bag of dog poop at the front gate. They appear to be on a lark, having some harmless fun, until a stomping-out of the flames reveals the contents of the bag.