Follow the Fleet. April 2016.

Dear Rowley,

We should all visit the BFI more, don’t you think? The British Film Institute is, quite simply, cinema for grown-ups who don’t need a bucket ‘o popcorn to munch or two litre bottles of Coke that gurgle like a main drain. You won’t find trotters on seats at the BFI or couples in the back row panting like randy spider monkeys. It pleases me to have free programme notes and no advertisements for violent blockbusters that are the cinematic equivalent of grievous bodily harm.

So it was to the BFI with a talented young performer/playwright for a viewing of the new Cohen brothers film, Hail Caesar!, in the Studio screening room that can’t seat more than twenty. When the Cohen brothers are good, they are very, very good. Remember Fargo (1996), the blackest kidnap comedy set in Canada, or Burn After Reading (2008) in which Brad Pitt gives a definitive performance as a personal trainer dumb as a tub of protein.

Hail Caesar! is the Cohen Brothers’ homage to 1950s Hollywood and is set in a studio that most resembles MGM. The studio boss Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) holds a rather loose plot together that is really no more than an excuse to lampoon Roman Epics, camp all-male tap musical numbers, the glory that was Esther Williams’s aquatic ballets and MGM’s penchant for putting valuable properties into highly unsuitable films.

Apart from the joy of George Clooney’s ham-acting Baird Whitlock flashing his thighs in a micro-mini Roman centurion’s costume, the kidnap plot is rather lame. It was amusing that the Communist cabal behind the abduction were all writers begrudging the lack of remuneration compared to the amount of dough their scripts brought in at the box office. To bag a line from Some Like It Hot, the writers always did get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

One can’t help but think that the film aspired to Woody Allen but the subject was much more suited to slapstick than satire. Let’s face it, making fun of MGM in its prime is like shooting fish in a barrel. The set pieces in Hail Caesar! do for Old Hollywood what Zoolander did to the fashion industry. The actors are clearly having a ball. But they don’t get the screen time to shine.

We longed to see more of Scarlett Johansson as knocked-up water ballet star DeeAnna Moran whose accent runs Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain a close second for grating on the nerves. I adored Aiden Ehrenreich as hick singing cowboy Hobie Doyle who is miscast as the romantic lead in a picture directed by English luvvie Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Both actors could have carried the main plot line.

You have to love Channing Tatum for learning how to tap like Gene Kelly and totally camping it up in the No Dames number danced by a troupe of horny sailors in the Swingin’ Dinghy. The Cohens didn’t go as far as Jane Russell’s Anyone Here for Love? number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – practically a homoerotic health and fitness magazine made flesh – but the inference was there.

Seasoned pros such as Frances McDormand (the star of Fargo) stole their scenes but I can’t help thinking that Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists based on Hedda Hopper was a talent squandered. Plot-wise, there was absolutely no reason for Swinton to play twins. More please of Veronica Osorio who played a Carmen Miranda-esque musical star called Carlotta Valdez. On a date with Hoby she decodes her charms with the immortal line ‘it’s all in the eyes and the thighs and the hips and the lips’. Ay caramba!

Needless to say, one didn’t buy a ticket for Hail Caesar! and expect biting satire. The mockery of Old Hollywood is deeply affectionate and celebrates the glory of overblown Roman Epics, waterlogged Esther Williams showstoppers and terribly gay group tap numbers. Besides, audiences in the 1950s were in on the jokes anyway but flocked to the flicks in the millions because nobody made movies as spectacular as MGM who truly did have ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ under contract.

Don’t know about you Rowley but I am ambivalent about knowing all the dirt about golden age Hollywood stars that fixers such as the fictional Eddie Mannix did their best to cover-up and bitches like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons tried to expose. Does knowing Judy Garland was at breaking point – sewing uppers and downers into the hems of her costumes – when making The Pirate diminish her performance? No.

Old Hollywood was no stranger to scandals be they murder (Fatty Arbuckle), alcoholism (Marion Davies), abortions (Marilyn Monroe), S&M sex (James Dean) or cocaine (Carmen Miranda). For all the complaints about the studio system, stars must have been grateful that their paymasters protected their investments. It was very rare for a studio to throw a No 1 box office star to the wolves though it did happen in the 30s when William Haines was caught once too often in the YMCA with a sailor.

Hail Caesar! never intended to be one of the great films about the dark underbelly of Hollywood such as Sunset Boulevard or A Star is Born. It gently mocks the dream factory without slitting the jugular like Soderbergh’s dark comedy Maps to the Stars. One gets the feeling the script was the Cohen brothers allowing their favourites like George Clooney and Channing Tatum to have a mad half hour on screen that is riotous but ultimately harmless.