Had we not already been aware of it, Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent re-make of True Grit (2010) made abundantly clear how much the brothers were beholden to and smitten by Hollywood’s lasting legacy – and its impenetrable ego. Their staunchest fans would be reluctant to concede it, but at heart the boys are traditionalists (notwithstanding their aberrant pretensions, ie, No Country For Old Men) – and more power to them for it. However, when it comes to satirising the industry that butters their bread, as they’ve done here, the guise of self-deprecation and mockery is, like Maxwell Smart’s ‘reverse psychology trick’, never strong enough to conceal a genuine belief in the status of cinema as a godsend to humanity. (And, again, good on them. All artists should be driven by this conviction. Otherwise what’s the point?)
Venturing into comedy, at which they have always understood narkiness better than subtlety, their latest outing is a mixed bag, but overall a ripping good yarn. It’s set sometime in the McCarthy ’fifties (without his purgings being specifically referred to). The famous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), starring as a Roman centurion in a Jesus epic, has been kidnapped by a coterie of miffed screenwriters calling themselves Communists and demanding a larger slice of the box-office pie.
The loosely structured, slightly loopy plot is built around a series of reverential and irresistible set pieces; Scarlett Johansson features as the mermaid in a classic, all-too-short aquatic ballet, Channing Tatum tap-dances, shimmies and humps his way through a high-camp Gene Kelly sailor routine, Ralph Fiennes suffers as the artiste directing a schmuck actor and Alden Ehrenreich, a cowboy who’s made it big, does a remarkable turn with a lasso while waiting on the sidewalk for his date. The attention to detail is to be savoured, and holding it all together is the stressed producer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). I found it impossible not to love this movie for the weird reason that, ultimately, escapist entertainment is lauded for being cheap and superficial, but justifiably cherished.