Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (2016)
The knives are out for golden age Hollywood in this sly satire from the mercurial talent of the Coen brothers.
In typical fashion they combine the writer/director/producer roles. After the run of more serious fare of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) True Grit (2010) and A Serious Man (2009) they’re back in the enjoyably goofy form of their early career.
The off screen sensibilities of tinseltown are merrily mocked as singing cowboys, dancing sailors and whip happy Romans collide in a series of films within a film ranging from film noir and musicals to costume drama.
In his fourth film for the Coens, George Clooney plays kidnapped star Baird Whitlock.
Capitol Pictures sends a ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix to find the dim actor so their prestige big budget biblical epic can be completed.
For Brolin it’s his third Coens’ feature after the two westerns No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).
Perfectly cast in the role of Mannix, Josh Brolin carries the film on his broad, pin striped suited shoulders, stomping about town and wrestling with his conscience over a career decision he’s being pressured to make.
Mannix has no specific job title but does possess a large office, an attentive PA and a direct line to Mr. Skank, the never seen mogul of Capitol Pictures. Directors and actors queue in Mannix’s office to petition for his services.
Mannix is that most pejorative Hollywood term, a suit.
They are the most maligned creatures in Hollywood, commonly regarded as mammon obsessed philistines and monstrous butchers of creative endeavour.
It’s an extraordinarily daring in joke to present Mannix as a squared jawed and gimlet eyed hero in the style of Raymond Chandler’s fictional private detective Phillip Marlowe, and it’s played always with a straight face.
For the devout and humble family man Mannix, film making is a religious vocation, a secret cigarette is his only vice.
Brolin has played a spin on the character before in the overblown and undercooked Gangster Squad (2013). The Coens have riffed on Marlowe before in the joyous The Big Lebowski (1998).
There’s an attache case of cash, mistaken identities, romance, religious discussion and foul mouthed bathing beauties. The fishy tale even features a fabulous water sequence in the style of Esther Williams featuring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid.
With a gang of disaffected revolutionary screenwriters powering the plot, it’s a mashed up antidote to the po faced sanctimony of Trumbo (2016).
Clooney is entertaining when aping the heavy acting style of classic Hollywood hero such as Charlton Heston, but lacks the light comic touch of his co-stars.
Michael Gambon raises a droll smile as the narrator, Jonah Hill makes a fleeting appearance and Channing Tatum performs a tremendous song and dance routine.
However everyone is outdone by Ralph Fiennes who in a late screwball career move is fast becoming the funniest man in film.
The many films within a film are rendered through brilliant technical skill, captured in customary consummate grace by perennial Oscar bridesmaid, Brit Roger Deakins.
Shot with loving panache, Deakins’ 12th collaboration with the Coens is suitably visually pristine and rich. His lens steps smoothly from genre to genre with immaculate grace and accuracy.
In this arch and sometimes affectionate comedy, the sharp stabs of humour are all the more effective for being delivered at close range from under a cloak of friendship.
Et tu Brute indeed.