As a lover of Old Hollywood and the 1950s style, this latest offering by the Coen Brothers was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing. It’s the story of Eddie Mannix, a studio ‘fixer’, responsible mainly for dealing with problem stars and keeping negative stories about them out of the press. The real Mannix wasn’t nearly as nice as the one played by here Josh Brolin – you can find out more in Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast here) – but it’s a comedy so let’s not get too hung up on the facts. You can still get a sense of what it must have been like trying to run the studio. When one of its biggest stars, Baird Whitelaw (played by George Clooney who’s even goofier than in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) suddenly goes missing, Mannix must try to find what happened to him.
The Coen Brothers claim never to do any research but that’s hard to believe that with this gorgeous and pitch perfect homage to the golden age of Hollywood. The film oozes glamour from the cars , hair and costumes to the fabulous studio lot. The other characters aside from Mannix are fictional but it’s not difficult to identify the people behind them. George Clooney is a goofy hunk, rather like Victor Mature and the Roman epic he stars in is clearly inspired by classics like Quo Vadis and The Robe. Scarlett Johansson’s bombshell is a mix of Esther Williams, Lana Turner and Loretta Young who secretly had a child with Clark Gable. Channing Tatum is like Gene Kelly with his On the Town style dance number, Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a Roy Rogers type singing cowboy, there’s a performer who wears fruit on her head like Carmen Miranda and Tilda Swinton in a fabulous double role as twin sister gossip columnists channelling Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Old Hollywood fans will have a treat picking out all the references and seeing this period so beautifully brought to life. There’s also a very funny scene in which British director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes once again displaying his great talent for comedy) tries to teach hopeless cowboy Hobie Doyle the right elocution for his drawing room drama which reminds me of Jean Harlow’s attempts at the correct pronunciation in Singin’ In the Rain. And then of course there is the Communist threat of a Hollywood takeover so cleverly referenced.
Yet for all these delightful scenes, I couldn’t help feeling throughout the film that something was missing – a story. The trailer had led me to expect a kind of mystery where Mannix tracks down Whitelaw. Without giving too much away, that isn’t really the case and we’re left instead with a series of charming vignettes of Hollywood’s greatest period. This probably also makes it less interesting to someone less familiar with 1950s cinema as I’m not sure they’d really see the point of certain scenes. But I might be wrong.
The film is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, although I was rather disappointed with the Esther Williams bathing beauty tribute as the sequence seems quite short and lacking in imagination compared to the real MGM displays and Johansson spends very little time in the water. But apart from that, I can’t really fault her performance or any of the top notch cast. So it’s not a great film, but a good one and the best thing of all is that it makes you want to get back to the original movies which inspired it and you can’t do much better than that.