Distinct comedy styles are usually based on genres rather than those of individuals who specialise on a smaller palette.

George Clooney stars in a scene from the movie Hail, Caesar!
George Clooney stars in a scene from the movie Hail, Caesar!

A few examples are the droll and self-effacing concoctions of the prolific Woody Allen, the fanciful flourishes of Wes Anderson and the low-key Jewish urban angst of Noah Baumbach.
But hovering over all of these are Joel and Ethan Coen, for whom no subject is too grand or too complex.
But they are also capable of over-reach and sometimes they produce complete misfires, the most recent being the folk-music themed Inside Llewyn Davis.
In between then and their latest release, Hail, Caesar! (Universal), they did a script makeover for Bridge of Spies, lifting a pedestrian Cold War thriller into the same class as John Le Carré.
Their greatest films are the stuff of Hollywood legend — Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, among many others.
Their latest takes them back to behind-the-scenes Hollywood (their first, Barton Fink (1991), was about a starstruck screenwriter) and a 1950s studio called Capitol Pictures churning out biblical epics, song and dance musicals, westerns and romantic melodramas.
The key character is the studio’s backroom “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is based on two recognisable figures from MGM history.
His workload is manic, ranging from dealing with well-informed twin gossip columnists too eager to spread bad news (both are played with panache by Tilda Swinton), a kidnapped star, a miscast leading man and a pregnant starlet.
Mannix is trying to quit smoking, pay more attention to his neglected family and assuage his guilt through continuous confession.
On top of this, an aircraft company is dangling an attractive job offer in a “real” business that contributes to society.
Religion plays quite a part in Mannix’s life (and in Coen films generally) as he has to manage the reaction of various faiths to the studio’s biggest production, in which a Roman centurion (George Clooney) is converted to Christianity at the Crucifixion.
But just before the climactic scenes at The Cross are filmed, and Clooney is to give an impassioned speech, he is captured by blacklisted screenwriters (shades of Trumbo), who turn theological turmoil into an ideological class struggle. Meanwhile, the studio’s highbrow director of drawing room drama (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling with the casting of a lasso swinging cowboy star in a Rock Hudson role; an Esther Williams lookalike (Scarlett Johansson) who is getting too big for her mermaid costume due to pregnancy; and a handsome Gene Kelly song and dance man (Channing Tatum) who turns out to be traitor.
This provides most of the highlights in a pastiche that is capped by a close up of a film editor (Frances McDormand) literally being caught up in her work. Unfortunately, despite these highs, the sum doesn’t add up to be greater than the whole.
Although superbly crafted and full of choice in-jokes, the Coens fail to match their admiration of past movie styles with their usually cynical eye for human hypocrisy and behaviour.
Hollywood has been more bitterly satirised without softening the blow by celebrating the very dreams it creates. Rating: Parental guidance (coarse language; 106 minutes.


  1. Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Emory Cohen, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.