When I hear that the mighty Coen Brothers have made a comedy, I don’t go into the theater expecting to see pratfalls and hear scatological jokes as in so many comedies these days. I expect witty writing, funny situations, wry satire. That’s exactly what I got in this one. It’s all about the last days of the studio system in the early 1950s, when every studio had a “fixer” whose job was to get their stars out of the embarrassing or even criminal situations they had gotten themselves into.
Josh Brolin is the fixer here. He has to deal with a motley crew including one of those singin’, rope-twirlin’ cowboys (Arlen Ehrenreich) with the super-smart horses, an Esther Williams-style mermaid (Scarlett Johansson) who can no longer get into her tail because she is pregnant, father unknown, and the studio’s biggest star, a dim bulb played by George Clooney. Brolin’s solution for the mermaid: Take some time off, have the baby, put it up for adoption, and then adopt it yourself! Nobody the wiser! (Apparently Loretta Young actually did this!)
Clooney is kidnapped. By a group of communist screenwriters! The man is so dumb that after only a few hours of listening to their dialectical bullshit he is a convert. Brolin has to literally slap some sense into him when they get him back. “You’re a fucking movie star, asshole! The system was made for people like you!” Meanwhile Brolin visits the sets of several movies, including a song and dance number featuring some of those beloved overgrown boys in sailor suits performing “No Dames!” They are led by Channing Tatum, who can really dance!
The only level-headed star on the lot, it seems, is the cowboy, so what do they do with him? Why, they cast him in a British drawing room drama directed by a snooty “quality” director (Ralph Fiennes), Laurence Laurentz (hello, Olivier!), who quietly goes insane trying to get the poor kid to say even one line without a Texas drawl. In the end they cut his part down to two words.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the sheer wackiness of this era in the movies. Take Esther Williams. For several years she was the biggest star on the Metro lot, and her acting ability consisted solely of being able to hold her breath for a long time.
The Coens and I love this era. These are the films we grew up seeing, and their take on them is sharp but affectionate. This film includes some scenes that are far, far more elaborate and expansive than anything in any previous Coen film. I’d like to see a making-of documentary, because it’s hard to believe the aquacade sequence was actually done on a sound stage. The Busby Berkeley overhead kaleidoscope of shapely legs is stunning. The sailor dance is terrific. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, though I would not put it in the very top rank of the Coen filmography.