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